✠ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today, Jesus observed some scribes and a widow. It’s a striking and revealing contrast.
Scribes were government officials associated with Jerusalem and the chief priests. They had intellectual, literary, political, and economic abilities and associated with the people of power and wealth. While not one-percenters, they were among the elites. They were authoritative teachers and enforcers of Jewish law and custom. Mark described them as a political group opposed to Jesus, attempting to undermine him.
The scribes were not a wholly unified class. As in our world, some would have been duteous officials of high integrity, and others would have been hypocritical, the kind of people Jesus described in today’s passage. He said of them:
1) They liked long, flowing robes. They were ostentatious, seeking attention and showing off their importance.
2) They sought signs of respect in the marketplace. They focused their energies on position and honor. They sought prestige.
3) They schemed for the best seats in the synagogues. They had power and influence in the community, making policies and enforcing them.
4) They devoured widows’ houses. They took advantage of the weak, even defrauded them, to enrich themselves.
5) They said long prayers in public, vain prayers drawing attention to themselves, making a show of their faith. Jesus taught people to pray privately and succinctly. (Matthew 6:5-13)
It’s a dark, dismal picture: unfaithfulness, selfishness, and pettiness dressed up as faithfulness, holiness, and righteousness. Greed hiding behind piety. It’s hardly the story of just some scribes two thousand years ago, but religious people in every age and place. We see it in our own world: religious people, often Christians, being hypocrites. Jesus warned of ravening wolves dressed in sheep’s clothing. (Mt 7:15) Those are hard, sobering words for any religious person, perhaps clergy especially.
Before I was baptized, one of the main things that put me off about the church was religious people. They looked like hypocrites, not worthy of trust. I couldn’t imagine belonging to such a self-righteous, inauthentic group… a bunch of scribes.
Jesus’ account of the scribes allows us to make some inferences about them. They seem closed up in their own world, pre-occupied, not seeing or hearing things they don’t want to see or hear, avoiding or ignoring unpleasant reality, blind to injustice. They don’t see the poor, the people their living high on, but instead inhabit a narrow, small world. Consequently, they have little compassion or empathy, cut off from the suffering of others. There’s separation and exclusivity – aloofness.
As Jesus represents the scribes, they seem to have little real longing or passion for God, little felt need for God. Instead they direct their energy toward self-justification, taking care of themselves, earning their place in heaven, self-satisfied and smug and brittle. It’s a life with little room for grace and love. They feel entitled to what they have and so have little gratitude, and life without gratitude is joyless. They seem enslaved to their own desires and small concerns – not truly free. In a sentence or two, Jesus sketched a dreadful way of life represented by the scribes.
The widow. In the Old Testament, widows were the common image of the oppressed and exploited, and God often expressed concern for them, but their life was tough. The Hebrew word for widow signifies someone who is silent. In the ancient Near East, as in parts of the world today, women did not speak in public; they had no voice. Widows were extremely vulnerable, especially if they had no sons or if their eldest son was not yet married. A widow could not inherit or own property, even if her husband had been one of the rich scribes. She was destitute, and the best option was a quick re-marriage or returning to her father’s home, neither of which might be possible.
Jesus noticed wealthy people making large gifts to the Temple treasury, and then he watched a widow donate two mites, two small copper coins, the least valuable coins. He said the widow had given more than the wealthy people. It’s as if the church received a gift of a million dollars and a gift of fifty cents, and Jesus declared that the person giving fifty cents had made a bigger sacrifice. The wealthy had given out of their abundance, and still had abundance, and the poor widow had given all that she had.
It’s not the amount that matters. It’s the proportion. That’s why in our stewardship teaching here we make such a big deal about proportional giving: being clear about our income, determining a percentage to give, trying to increase that percentage over time. It probably helps to inspire the great generosity here.
The widow gave all that she had to the Temple treasury. A day or two before this scene, Jesus had called the Temple “a den of thieves.” (Mark 11:17) Right after today’s gospel ends, as Jesus walked out of the Temple, he said, “There’s not a stone in the whole place that is not going to end up in a heap of rubble.” (Mark 13:2) The widow gave to a corrupt institution, one that was exploiting her, helping the rich to live off the poor, and an institution whose time and purpose had come to an end.
Compare the widow’s gift, her whole living – Jesus calls it, to the gift Jesus is about to make: his whole life. This scene happens just a day or two before he’s arrested, tortured, and killed. Jesus gave his life for all, including those who abandoned him, rejected him, ignored him, avoided him, tortured him, killed him. Jesus gave his life for what is corrupt, for what needs reforming and renewal – for humanity.
Apparently, in making her gift, the widow was willing to be chumped, to be duped, to be suckered. We could look on this as weakness and foolishness, or as remarkable faith: trust that God would care for her, that she’d be alright, that grace prevails; trust that she had something important to give; trust in the importance of being generous.
Generosity springs from gratitude. Think of those moments in your life when you’ve been thankful. Did you not want to respond, to do something kind or beautiful or magnanimous out of the gratitude you felt? The widow didn’t give out of duty or guilt, otherwise she’d have put in the required amount, no more. She gave because she had a grateful heart, giving to express thanks.
The widow lived on the margin, likely exploited, poor, vulnerable. She had experienced dark and intense troubles, and she had compassion and empathy for others in need. Giving the little she had to support the community, to support God’s work, to share what she’d received.
She has inner freedom, not self-preoccupied, not calculating, not fretting and anxious about little things, not needing recognition and honor. She has perspective about what really matters. She seems to possess the fruits of the Spirit: gratitude, peace, gentleness, joy, patience, goodness.
Two pictures of people today: scribes and a widow. Who would you rather be like? When I rein in my piety, and get honest with myself, and really consider the circumstances of each person, I know that parts of me want nothing to do with the widow. Her life involved real hardship: losing a husband, possibly a broken-heart, the fear and uncertainty of being on her own, overlooked, destitute, unprotected, and voiceless – the vulnerability, the loneliness, the struggle.
On the other hand, the life of the scribes attracts me: privilege, learning, education, respect, power, wealth, influence, ability, popularity, sophistication, importance. But I recognize that these are the circumstances of each. When I focus on character, I’m drawn to the widow. It’s what I want for myself, for those I love, for my community, for all people. The scribes and the widow are two kinds of character, two ways of life: one that leads to alienation, separation, fear, loneliness. The other leads to connection, unity, love, trust.
When I look into myself, I see both ways warring within me. Today’s gospel reminds us that we have parts of our character that are like the scribes and parts like the widow. We’re not perfect, each of us is corrupt in ways and yet still longing for God – to be grateful, generous, trusting, compassionate. Jesus came and gave himself to help us grow to become less like the scribes and more like the widow. It’s why this parish exists, what we’re doing together. It’s transformation: we can, and do, become more like Christ.
✠ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Anthony Saldarini, article on ‘Scribes’ in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol 5, David Noel Freedman, Editor in Chief, Doubleday (1992), p.1015.
 This paragraph abut widows from Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Fortress Press (2003), pp. 423.