In his teaching Jesus said, ‘Beware of the scribes who like to walk about in long robes, to be greeted obsequiously in the market squares, to take the front seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at banquets; these are the men who swallow the property of widows, while making a show of lengthy prayers. The more severe will be the sentence they receive.’ He sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the treasury, and many of the rich put in a great deal. A poor widow came and put in two small coins, the equivalent of a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘I tell you solemnly, this poor widow has put more in than all who have contributed to the treasury; for they have all put in money they had over, but she from the little she had has put in everything she possessed, all she had to live on.’
In his teaching Jesus said, ‘Beware of the scribes who like to walk about in long robes, to be greeted obsequiously in the market squares, to take the front seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at banquets; these are the men who swallow the property of widows, while making a show of lengthy prayers. The more severe will be the sentence they receive.’
He sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the treasury, and many of the rich put in a great deal. A poor widow came and put in two small coins, the equivalent of a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘I tell you solemnly, this poor widow has put more in than all who have contributed to the treasury; for they have all put in money they had over, but she from the little she had has put in everything she possessed, all she had to live on.’
“All she had to live on”
by Dc. Robert Falzon SDB
There was once an emperor who wanted to build a Cathedral. He wanted to ensure God’s blessing on his reign. So he sought to build the grandest and most majestic Cathedral that existed at that time. How lovely it would be to have his name recorded in history as the one who built this jewel for God’s glory and God’s people!
The works soon began, and all the people contributed in some way: either in service or financially.
However there was one old woman called Sophia, who was very poor but who still wanted to contribute to the building of this cathedral. She had been blessed with a long and relatively beautiful life. She wanted to thank God with all her heart. But she really was poor. Then she had an idea.
As the Emperor looked on, seated on his majestic white horse, occasionally ordering the workers about as the work progressed, Sophia used to sneak up to the horses who were pulling enormous stones and fed them with the wheat she had and gave them water to drink. This went on till the end of the works.
On the day of the consecration of the Cathedral, there were huge celebrations. But something very interesting happened! As the Emperor was approaching the Cathedral in great pomp, the doors of the Cathedral flew open and a loud and grand voice was heard from inside: “I thank you, dearest Sophia, for building my house!”
In today’s Gospel we find this widow, who like Sophia, gives “everything she had, all she had to live on”. She does this out of love for God and nothing else. And Jesus sees her among the crowd and loves her. This widow was truly one of his own: one who truly reflects his image and likeness. Jesus too, had given everything, had emptied himself to become one of us! And later on, on the Cross he too will give all he has to live on – he gives up, for our good, his Spirit of Life.
The central issue in today’s gospel is not really about the joy of living in misery! It is about living and becoming like Jesus. We cannot be like Jesus if we give up just the extra bit that we don’t need. We cannot be like Jesus if we do good so as to quieten down our nagging conscience. We cannot be like Jesus if we are charitable to others so as to leave a good impression. Becoming like Jesus means loving unconditionally, giving all, and trusting fully in the Father’s loving care, in whom we move and have our being.
Today’s gospel presents Jesus as someone who observes human behaviour and is able to read people’s innermost intentions. The people in the crowd listening to him were well used to seeing how diligently the scribes sought out the first places, but none of them would have dared to judge them as severely as Jesus did. None of the disciples who were with Jesus in the temple would have valued the widow’s small contribution as highly as he did. It is interesting to reflect on the fact that Jesus observes the most commonplace details of daily life and is able to see the ultimate reason behind people’s actions.
I. Read: understand what the text is saying, focussing on how it says it
When he was teaching in the Temple (Mk 11, 27), Jesus had to face a series of debates, one after the other, with different groups of Jewish leaders. This particular episode closes with a double comment which, this time, is not provoked by his opponents. It arose instead from his desire to teach, first the people (Mk 12, 38-40), and then, later, the disciples (Mk 12, 41-44). In both cases his teaching comes from his capacity for observing people. First of all, there were the people who heard him with delight (Mk 12, 37). Then there were the scribes who thought they knew the law well (Mk 12, 38-40). He spoke to his disciples, in particular, about the generosity of the poor widow as an example of authentic worship (Mk 12, 41-44).
The teaching of Jesus starts from a small detail of life that most people would not even notice, but Jesus, always attentive to what was going on around him, could appreciate what he saw. He praised the poor widow and her small alms. Anyone else would have overlooked her and her donation because it was so small, but Jesus knew how much it cost that woman to give all she had to live on (Mk 12, 44). God deserves no less than everything, even if that turns out to be very little. It is quite significant that this final teaching of his third day in Jerusalem was addressed exclusively to his disciples.
II. Meditate: apply what the text says to life
When he compared the attitude of the scribes with that of the poor widow, Jesus was bound to provoke controversy. Some people perform acts of worship in the hope of gaining privilege or advantage in the community. This poor woman gave to God all she had to live on. They give in the hope of receiving. She simply gives, and gives totally. They expect to receive more than they give. She places everything she has in God’s hands. Jesus comments to his disciples on both, and proposes the anonymous widow to them as a model for their imitation. God does not want what we have left over. He wants all that we need in order to live, all that we think indispensable. He does not deserve our leftovers, but everything we have. In this way we increase the treasure of our faith and put our trust in him for all that we need. When we give him all that we need in order to live, we are giving him also our lives.
It is comforting to know that we have a God who is capable of seeing beyond the surface to the hidden motives of human behaviour. God is not impressed by those who seek the first place. He does not fail to take notice of those who will never be given the higher places. God values our actions for the inner motives that move us to perform them. We can be sure that he will take into consideration even the smallest sacrifice. God shows no favouritism. He is a God who is worthy of trust. We can safely entrust to him the little we have. God sees and appreciates those who are of little value in the eyes of others and gives us hope that one day we will be truly appreciated. This is our God, the God of Jesus, a God so attentive to us that he will find in us something worthy of his attention, where no one but he can find it.
To be able to count on him we must model our behaviour on that of the widow and not on the attitude of the scribes. If we really want God to have a favourable opinion of us, as Jesus had of the poor widow, we do not need to do anything extraordinary. All we need to do is to cultivate in ourselves the mentality of that poor woman, rather than that of the scribes. Which of them do we resemble most? Maybe it is better to ask ourselves: which of the two attitudes would Jesus see in us if he were to observe us today? The scribes were men well versed in the law of God, like those people nowadays who make God’s will their profession, experts and teachers of the law of God. Because they know it all, they think they are self-sufficient. They may be sincere but their good deeds lead them to seek privileges, over those who know less about God than they do. They think they should have first place among those who do good, because they think they are first in the eyes of God. They use their knowledge and their piety to claim positions of power. They think they are deserving of the gratitude of others, and they accumulate possessions at the expense of the poor. Does this seem a cruel judgment? Jesus spoke even harsher words: they “swallow the property of widows, while making a show of lengthy prayers.” (Mk 12.40). Anyone who uses his relationship with God for his own advantage at the expense of others, cannot expect a kindly judgment. Those who use God to leave their neighbour impoverished, cannot expect a happy end.
Jesus was very critical of people who make a show of devotion, and very sensitive towards little spontaneous gestures of authentic devotion. He draws the attention of the disciples to what he has just seen. A widow made an offering of only two pennies. It seemed a trivial offering, but Jesus considered it great because of who made it. He pointed to her as an example for the disciples, not because she had given a lot, but because she had given God all she had. By putting into the treasury everything she had, she entrusted to God her few possessions and her whole life. What she gave in the Temple was not enough for her to live on, but it was all she had. She placed in God’s hands, not what she had left over, but the little that she needed. Instead of adding to her poverty, she entrusted her need to God. By giving all, even what was necessary, she made God the custodian of her life. She placed her life in God’s hands – and how good the hands of God are! That was the measure of her trust. The poor widow was not giving alms to God, but she gave him what she had to live on. She did not give what was left over, but what she needed for herself. By putting in God’s hands the little she had, she put her life in God’s hands. God became her master and the guardian of her patrimony.
Jesus wanted to teach the people a lesson on the miserly behaviour of the scribes, but he could not overlook the detached attitude of the widow. Those who think they need God to give them status in the sight of others, who honour God in order to be honoured by others, who seek God because they want others to seek them, do not deserve God. God cannot be made a pretext for accumulating honour and privilege, but the temptation is always there, especially among those who honour God most. We lose the respect we owe him when we respect him only to win the respect of others, when secretly we want to obtain for ourselves the honour we give to God. In our relationship with God, we need to be more sincere, because this is the only way we can be sure we will not become like the scribes whom Jesus criticised.
It is not enough not to exploit the fact that we are disciples of Jesus to improve our status and our work. We need to imitate the attitude of the widow, who was able to place in God’s hands the little she had to live on for the rest of her days. She knew she had very little and it cost her a lot to detach herself from everything she had and put her trust in God. Like Jesus in the Temple, God sees the true intentions behind our little offerings, when we place our trust in him. It is good to know that God is pleased with very little, if it is all we have. He pays no heed to how much or how little we offer. By giving him all we have and making him the guardian of all our possessions, we make God our treasure and our treasurer. We place all our trust in God who expects no more from us than the little we have. The gift God expects of us is our poverty. God makes it easy for us to give him all we have.
We should take seriously the warning of Jesus and his exhortations. We know that our relationship with God is a privileged one, but we must not exploit it in order to obtain privileges from other people. Rather, we should begin to trust God in order to have in him our only treasure. To be disciples of Jesus and believers in God, to be Christians today, we are called, not to seek success and honour, but to put everything at the service of God, even the things we need. He will take care of us. We don’t need to give him any more than what we have. How could we ever expect to gain so much in return for so little?
so that, unencumbered in body and soul,
we may devote ourselves to your service in freedom and joy.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
“Skye Cuillin” by Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 – http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/