In Mark (12) Jesus denounced the scribes’ false piety and attention-seeking ways while commending the quiet, humble, genuine sacrifice of the poor widow.
The term “flowing robes” evidently refers to the tallith, a shawl worn during formal prayer and other religious acts in the synagogues. Some scribes may have worn these in public to attract attention. The greetings in the marketplaces were not ordinary greetings but expressions of respect to a religious authority.
Therefore, Jesus warns against leaders who seek to draw attention to themselves by their dress, by the greetings they evoke, and by the places they take not just in society but also within the worshipping community.
Their ethics reek to high heaven (devouring vulnerable widows’ houses is about as low as you can go), while they keep up appearances with pious shows of long prayers.
Communities where leadership is focused on prestige and trappings will invariably fail in their duty to care for the “little ones,” to use a term from Mark’s gospel, referring to those who are vulnerable.
Jesus then draws attention to a destitute widow as she puts two copper coins in the temple treasury. She remains anonymous in contrast to the scribes who proudly project their egos to the world around them.
In Greek, the word used for the two widow’s coins are two lepta, which means “a tiny thing.” This lepton was the smallest coin, the smallest unit of money in circulation during that time and place.
In this era, a denarius equals one day’s pay, and a lepton was 1/64th of a denarius – not enough money to buy even a crumb of bread to eat. Jesus makes clear that this widow is “poor” (v42).
There are two Greek words used in the New Testament for the word poor: one refers to someone who doesn’t have a steady job (penes), the other describes someone who is a beggar (ptoche). Mark’s widow is identified as ptochoi; she is the poorest of the poor.
Jesus evaluated the temple giving that day by what people had, not by what they gave. This poor widow gave more than all the others put together, though her gift was by far the smallest.
The value of the gift is not determined by the amount but by the spirit in which it is given. A gift given grudgingly or for recognition loses its value.
God expects people who put their trust in God to find ways to give back to him from all he has entrusted to them – from both their abundance and their lives.
It is significant that the widow possesses two coins since this means that she potentially could have given one to the treasury and kept one for herself.
Instead, she gives it all, “everything she had, all she had to live on” (v44). In Greek, this verse reads that she literally gives “her whole life.” The widow’s total giving demonstrates an attitude of absolute trust in God.
Overall, Jesus wanted to highlight the deceptive motives of religious leaders by comparing their false piety with the quiet, humble, genuine sacrifice of the poor widow.
Will the widow’s response to God’s call be a standard for us to follow as we answered our own call from God? In our claims to serve God, how do we respond to those who cry out for integrity and justice?
Rev Motekiai has drawn on the following sources: Brooks, JA (1991). Mark (vol 23, pp 202 – 206). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.