To read the texts click on the texts: 1Kgs 17:10-16; Heb 9:24-28; Mk 12:38-44
The second part of the Gospel story for today is often referred to as the story of “The Widow’s Mite” where “mite” refers to a small copper coin. An even better title might be “The Widow’s Plight” because this is what the story is really about. On the one hand, and at the surface level, the generosity of the widow’s selfless act is commended by Jesus. This is also the theme of the first reading in which the Sidonian widow, who gave generously to Elijah out of her meagre resources, is commended and also rewarded. On the other hand, however, and at a deeper level, Jesus is pointing out the plight of the widow and, by doing so, pointing out the plight of the numerous poor in the Church, and in the world, who are being exploited and divested even of their meagre possessions.
This kind of exploitation is brought out powerfully in the famous remark that Bishop Desmond Tutu likes to make often: “When the missionaries came to Africa, we had the land and they had the Bible. Then they said ‘Let us pray’ and asked us to close our eyes. When we opened them, they had the land and we had the Bible”. He does not end here, however. He adds, “And I think we got the better deal”. The widow in the Gospel text of today also gets the better deal but there is much that goes on before she does.
What goes on before is the exploitation of the widow whom organized religion, at the time of Jesus, had indoctrinated and programmed to give up even her very life. This exploitation is made bare by Jesus in the first part of today’s Gospel text. It begins with the condemnation of the “scribes” who here, represent the authorities. The charge against them is that, not only do they wear their religion on their sleeve for outward show, but that they also, in the name of religion, “devour widows’ houses”. The “scribes,” who do not practice religion as they are meant to, are the very ones who instruct others on what they ought to do.
Widows are not exempted. A widow, at the time of Jesus, was regarded as a non-entity. She was despised, reviled, and unloved. She could be taken advantage of merely because she had no man to protect her. Thus, she could easily become the target for unscrupulous and deceitful men. This is the kind of person who, in the Gospel text of today, is willing, even in the dire straits that she is in, to give her all. She will hold nothing back. This is precisely the reason why Jesus lavishes praise on her. She has done all that is required of her. She has trusted, she has faith and she shows this, in action, by giving. In praising the widow, however, Jesus is definitely not sanctioning the practice of the poor giving to the Temple. This is made clear in the contrast that he makes between the scribes, who offer from their abundance, and the widow, who gives generously from her poverty.
It is the practice in some quarters to ask people to be generous with their money. Often, scripture is quoted to make the point and what the Lord said about generosity and giving, in quite a different context, is used by the unscrupulous to fill their coffers. Many TV evangelists preach what is known as the Prosperity Gospel. These evangelists offer to the simple “a pie in the sky when you die” kind of hope, while all the time, they themselves have their pie right here on earth. The Gospel text of today is a condemnation of such people and practices, no matter under what holy semblance they may hide. These, who ought to lead people to God, instead lead the money of the poor to their own treasuries.
The condemnation of the scribes is not merely a condemnation that was relevant 2000 years ago but is a condemnation relevant today. Whenever the poor are exploited, the condemnation of Jesus is heard again. Whenever the poor are denied their rights, the condemnation is heard again. Whenever the poor are taken advantage of, the condemnation is heard again.
The letter to the Hebrews confirms and affirms that, with Jesus, it was not a “pie in the sky when you die” kind of existence. It was a real existence which did not deny the trials and tribulations of life and so, faced them squarely. It was an existence which was willing to suffer on earth, not because of the reward in heaven, but because that was the way life was to be lived. It was an existence in which Jesus was willing to give up his very life so that others might have life in abundance. Through this kind of life, Jesus gives a message to all of us who wish to live fully. The message is this: Salvation is here and now. The life you live now will be the life you will live in heaven.
The Sidonian widow, who was generous with Elijah, and the widow in the Gospel text of today, who gave her very self, lived this kind of life. The scribes did not. Others today, who continue to take advantage of the poor and oppressed, often in the name of religion, will receive the harsher condemnation.