a public place and likely within earshot of his targets,
Jesus hurls a scathing insult at the scribes by urging
the crowd to be wary of them. The scribes of Jesus’
day were experts in the Law of Moses, scholars to
whom people turned for proper understanding of God’s
will as revealed in Scripture. They contributed to
the development of rabbinism in the third century
of the common era, the forerunner of modern-day Judaism.
Jesus publicly criticizes their behavior as a ceaseless grasping
for honor. The Talmud notes that when two people meet in the
marketplace, the one inferior in knowledge of the Law should
greet the other first. Since no one knew the Law as well as
the scribes, they sought out and basked in this recognition.
In the synagogue the scribes claimed the best seats which were
those on a platform facing the people. People seated on these
chairs rested their backs against the same wall that held the
ark which contained the Torah scrolls.
At banquets, the best seats were reserved for people of importance
like experts in the Law.
Jesus concludes his attack by accusing the scribes of “devouring
widows’ houses.” No sooner has Jesus spoken than a widow comes
along and places two of the smallest coins in first-century
Palestine into the coffers, thus fulfilling her religious duty.
Jesus’ comment on the widow’s donation is not a word of praise
but rather a word of lament: “Truly I say to you this
poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing
to the treasury. For they all contributed out of their abundance;
but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her
whole living” (Mk 12:43-44).
The word for “widow” in Hebrew carries the meaning
of one who is silent, who is unable to speak. Recall that all
of Mediterranean culture is divided along gender lines. Men
belong in the public sphere; women remain secluded with the
children deep within the home. Men play the public role, and
women do not speak on their own behalf.
A widow is already bereft of her husband, the male in whom
she was embedded. If her eldest son was not yet married, she
was even more disadvantaged. And if she had no sons at all,
she might have to return to her family of origin (see Lev 22:13; Ruth 1:8) if that were still possible. As the Pastoral Epistles
indicate, widows constituted a major concern in the early Christian
community. Younger ones posed a special danger, and the author
of those Epistles urged them to remarry (1 Tim 5:3-16, esp.
Because widows were not included in Hebrew inheritance laws,
their constant concern was simply living from day to day. Any
resources this widow had were meager at best. In the Mediterranean
world, the cultural obligation upon everybody is to maintain
one’s status and do nothing to jeopardize or lessen it. If,
as Jesus observes, this woman has given to the Temple “all
she had to live on,” the woman has acted very shamefully.
She has deliberately worsened her status.
Jesus does not praise but rather laments this woman’s behavior.
She has been taught “sacrificial giving” by her religious
leaders, and that is the pity. These authorities promised to
redistribute Temple collections to the needy. In actuality,
they spent the funds on conspicuous consumption instead: long
robes and banquets. This is how they “devoured the estates
of widows” (Mk 12:40).
John J. Pilch
J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and
facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published
fourteen books by Pilch exploring the
“cultural world” of the Bible.
Go to http://www.litpress.org/ to
find out more.
Copyright © 1997 by The Order of St.
Benedict, Inc., Collegeville, MN.
All rights reserved.
Used by permission from The
Liturgical Press, Collegeville,
The complete text of the
above article can be found in:
The Cultural World of Jesus, Sunday by Sunday, Cycle B
John J. Pilch. The Liturgical Press. 1996. pp. 160-161.
Martin Erspamer, O.S.B.
from Religious Clip Art for the
(A, B, and C).
Used by permission of Liturgy Training
Publications. This art may be reproduced
only by parishes who purchase the
collection in book or CD-ROM form. For
more information go to: http://www.ltp.org/