What do you think of the poor widow in this text giving away everything she has to live on? Is she someone we should emulate? Is she a model of stewardship? Should we feel guilty if we don’t give away everything we have? Is she just being irresponsible?
Notice that Jesus doesn’t commend her for contributing all she had to live on, nor does he tell his disciples to “go and do likewise.” Why she gives away everything isn’t actually the point here.
The first part of this text, in fact, this whole section of Mark’s gospel, is an escalation of the conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities (scribes and pharisees). The reason why this conflict is escalating is really the point. This poor widow stands in stark contratst to the scribes.
Scribes are denounced by Jesus because the way they are on the inside of a temple system that benefits them. They’re not stealing or anything. The customs and rules of the temple have been in place for centuries. There were 13 “trumpets” for offerings in one of the courtyards. They funded the running of the temple, made it convenient for sacrifices, helped the poor, and so on. The scribes aren’t doing anything unexpected, illegal, or dishonest. They are doing what everyone knows the temple has always done. It’s not their fault that it works for them. They just want respect, best seats, places of honor, look good to others (long robes and long prayers). Since it works for them, they don’t want this temple setup to change.
The contrast Jesus makes is between the scribes who are part of a temple where their needs are met vs. the poor widow who is on the outside edge of the temple community but whose needs are not met, and yet still gives all she has.
The deeper question Jesus is asking is, “Why is the temple here, and whose needs are being met by it?” And he has a problem with the answer, because even though the temple is a community of God’s people for God’s work, that’s not what is happening. It’s a system that sustains those on the inside, the scribes and Pharisees, while virtually ignoring the needs of people like this poor widow. Of course the scribes are most comfortable with it. It’s working for them! Instead of caring about this poor widow, the scribes are more concerned with maintaining a church system that meets their needs.
Oh, those nasty scribes! How dare they?! It’s so easy to judge them, because we are nothing like them! Right? . . .
Can you guess where I’m going here? How many of us, when looking for a church or critiquing a church, ask the question, “What does this church offer me? How can it benefit me? What can it meet the needs of my family?” and use that answer to evaluate that church? If I’m not getting what I want in one church, I’ll check out another one that will give it to me.
Again, Jesus asks the deeper question, “Why is the church here, and whose needs are being met by it?”
Jesus has been, and is now, leading up to a total denouncing of the temple system because those who are inside are the ones who benefit. Rather than using the temple to serve others in God’s name, the scribes use it for their own comfort and benefit, to meet their own needs.
So I wonder, why are we here in this place? What’s our primary concern about whose needs should be met by this church?
Jesus makes it very plain that he and the community of his disciples are here first for those outside, those on the margins, the poor, the lost, the helpless. We, as followers of Jesus, are gathered together by the Holy Spirit not primarily for ourselves but for those Jesus came to serve. If we, and our families, and our friends, are the primary beneficiaries of our own congregational system, we will be continually disappointed and frustrated in the church. Because that’s not the core identity of the church, not what the church is here for. Jesus is calling us to something else–a life in which we are not the center. We are called to give ourselves away. Our whole lives. For the sake of those the rest of the world disregards.
What would be different if that whole temple system was set up to meet the needs of people like this poor widow who has nothing—no income, no support, no security? What if she was the primary beneficiary rather than those inside?
That’s where Jesus’ conflict with the scribes and Pharisees is leading him. Jesus challenges systems that aren’t serving others. He calls out religious people, acting in God’s name, who believe the church should primarily benefit themselves. Jesus keeps trying, over and over, to get his disciples to see this. This is what God is about. This is what the Jesus community exists for.
If there’s any conflict in the church today, it’s over the same thing. Does the church primarily exist to serve its members, or does it primarily exist to serve the world Jesus died to save?
LCM is at a perfect point, right now, to clarify our answer that question. Why is the church here? Why is LCM here? For those of us on the inside of this church, whose needs should be considered first?