Monday, November 1, 2021

Pretentious Pretenders Pressuring Penurious Pensioners

Pretentious Pretenders Pressuring Penurious Penniless Pensioners

Below is my rough translation and initial comments about Mark 12:38-44, the Revised Common Lectionary’s gospel reading for the 25thSunday after Pentecost. At bottom is my theological musing about the text. 

We are in Mark’s gospel, in the last week of Jesus’ life. Jesus has entered Jerusalem, the place where he has disclosed three times that he would be rejected, suffer, die, and be raised on the third day. Beginning in 11:27, Jesus has been challenged by a number of questions, starting with the chief priests, scribes, and elders, joined later by the Herodians. Many of these questions were manifestly trick question. In response to the first question, Jesus told the parable of the wicked tenants (12:1-11), which “they” (chief priests, scribes, and elders) perceived was aimed at them. As a result, they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd. That fear might explain why they needed an insider to betray Jesus in order that they could arrest him in a secluded place under the cover of darkness. 

The one question, that might have been genuine, was the question of what is the first and greatest command.  That exchange seems to be different from the prior questions, but Mark ends it with the cryptic comment, “After that no one dared to ask him any question.” In Matthew’s telling, this question too was a trick question and in Luke’s telling, the one who poses the question seeks to justify himself with the question of “who is my neighbor?” to which Jesus gives the parable of the good Samaritan in response. In the end, I am not certain whether the question of the greatest command was different in kind than the other trick questions that precede it. 

With today’s pericope, Jesus goes on the offensive and his words are aimed at the Scribes. The scribal office is not a religious office, although given the reliance of religious authority on written texts they were of great service to religious offices. Judging from what follows, Jesus saw the scribes as using their offices for self-importance and to exploit others.   

38 Καὶ ἐν τῇ διδαχῇ αὐτοῦ ἔλεγεν, Βλέπετε ἀπὸ τῶν γραμματέων τῶν θελόντων ἐν στολαῖς περιπατεῖν καὶ ἀσπασμοὺς ἐν ταῖς ἀγοραῖς 
And in his teaching he was saying, “Look out for the Scribes who want to walk in robes and salutations in the marketplaces 
ἔλεγεν: IAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
Βλέπετε: PAImpv 2p, βλέπω, 1) to see, discern, of the bodily eye
θελόντων: PAPart gpm, θέλω, 1) to will, have in mind, intend
περιπατεῖν: PAInf, περιπατέω, 1) to walk 
1. The KJV translates “in his teaching” as “in his doctrine,” which is a perfectly legitimate possibility and which gives what follows a very different feel – “the doctrine of Jesus.” 
2. The last phrase in this verse (a salutation in the marketplace) and the phrases in the next verse are all in the accusative case, meaning that they are direct objects of a verb. But, of what verb? The only real candidate would be θελόντων, the participle which I am translating as “want” (or “will” or “desire”).  The KJV translates θελόντωνas “loves” and re-inserts it (in italics) at the beginning of the phrase “salutations in the marketplace.” The infinitive “to walk” does not fit easily in English as one of the series with the accusative nouns that follow.

39 καὶ πρωτοκαθεδρίας ἐν ταῖς συναγωγαῖς καὶ πρωτοκλισίας ἐν τοῖς δείπνοις: 
and prominent seats in in the synagogue and a prominent greetings in the feasts; 
1. I am using the adjective “prominent” to reflect the prefix πρωτο(literally, “proto”) attached to the nouns ‘seats’ and ‘greetings.’ 

40 οἱ κατεσθίοντες τὰς οἰκίας τῶν χηρῶν καὶ προφάσει μακρὰ 
προσευχόμενοι, οὗτοι λήμψονται περισσότερον κρίμα. 
they – who are consuming the houses of the widows and praying long in pretense – will incur extreme judgment. 
κατεσθίοντες: PAPart npm, κατεσθίω, 1) to consume by eating, to eat up, devour
προσευχόμενοι: PMPart npm, προσεύχομαι, 1) to offer prayers, to pray   
λήμψονται: FMI 3p, λαμβάνω, 1) to take 
1. I am setting the two participial phrases off in dashes, and interpreting “will incur” (λήμψονται) as the main verb to go with “They” (οἱ).  I could be wrong here.
2. Typically I translate λαμβάνω as “to take.” But, because this is in the middle voice, as in “to take for oneself,” I am translating it as “incur.” 
3. “Consuming” or “devouring” (κατεσθίω) seems to be a play on words – this is what the Scribes are devouring at their feasts – Casa de la Widow, medium rare.
4. Long prayers are miserable enough. Pretentious long prayers leave everyone whispering "Come, Lord Jesus."

41 Καὶ καθίσας κατέναντι τοῦ γαζοφυλακίου ἐθεώρει πῶς  ὄχλος βάλλει 
χαλκὸν εἰς τὸ γαζοφυλάκιον: καὶ πολλοὶ πλούσιοι ἔβαλλον πολλά: 
And having sat down over-against the treasury box he was observing how the crowd gives coins into the treasury box; and many wealthy ones were giving many; 
καθίσας: AAPart nsm, καθίζω, 1) to make to sit down
ἐθεώρει: IAI 3s, θεωρέω, 1) to be a spectator, look at, behold  
βάλλει: PAI 3s, βάλλω, 1) to throw or let go of a thing without caring where it falls 
ἔβαλλον: IAI 3p, βάλλω, 1) to throw or let go of a thing without caring where it falls 
1. The preposition κατέναντιis interesting. Literally it is over-against. Perhaps we could see it just as a spatial term, like “across from,” but it seems to have deeper meaning – an opposition, rather than a simple position. Significantly, Mark uses it again in 13:3 to say that Jesus sat on the Mount of Olives over-against the temple before speaking of the temple’s destruction. This seems to indicate theo-political space. 
2. Typically, I would translate βάλλω as “throw.” It is a handy verb in the gospels, used to describe things like exorcisms (throw/cast out) or throwing aside one’s garments. In this pericope it almost seems to be used both literally – tossing one’s coins into the treasury box – and figuratively, like we might say “pitch in” to refer to people giving toward something but not necessarily throwing what they give. It just reads more naturally to use “give” throughout this pericope, rather than “throw.” 
3. It is a dramatic break with some OT theology that the gospels do not equate wealth with blessings; poverty with curses. Rather, they typically equate wealth with exploitation and poverty with being exploited. It raises the question of whether wealth and poverty are fixed terms or are always relative to the economic context in which the wealth or poverty is exchanged. This text seems to be a good time to mention Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty's marvelous argument (The Problem of Wealth: A Christian Response to a Culture of Affluencethat we often speak of "the problem of poverty" when we ought to speak of "the problem of wealth." 

42 καὶ ἐλθοῦσα μία χήρα πτωχὴ ἔβαλεν λεπτὰ δύο,  ἐστιν κοδράντης. 
And one poor widow having come gave two coppers, which is a penny.  
ἐλθοῦσα: AAPart nsf, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come
ἔβαλεν: AAI 3s, βάλλω, 1) to throw or let go of a thing without caring where it falls 
ἐστιν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
1. I am not going to try to come up with the exact names of the coins and their relative value for this pericope. This story is often called the story of the widow’s “mite,” which is the KJV translation for λεπτὰ . I don’t see where trying to be exact in the ancient coinage is of particular interest. If you know better, please educate me. 
2. What is particularly interesting is that Mark, the narrator, explains the value of two λεπτὰ, just like earlier Mark explained the meaning of the name Bartimaeus. Mark does not assume that his readers know the value of Jerusalem (or perhaps temple) coinage. (Hence, perhaps his primary readers are Galileans; or Gentiles.) 

43 καὶ προσκαλεσάμενος τοὺς μαθητὰς αὐτοῦ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν 
ὅτι  χήρα αὕτη  πτωχὴ πλεῖον πάντων ἔβαλεν τῶν βαλλόντων εἰς τὸ 
And having called together his disciples he said to them, “Truly I say to you that this poor widow gave more than all of the givers into the treasury box; 
προσκαλεσάμενος: AAPart nsm, προσκαλέομαι, 1) to call to
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
λέγω: PAI 1s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
ἔβαλεν: AAI 3s, βάλλω, 1) to throw or let go of a thing without caring where it falls 
1. Mark uses the phrase “Truly I say to you” often. Below are the citations and my brief thumbnail of what is going on. It would be great if one could find convincing patterns of when and how Mark uses this phrase specifically. That might even be D.Min. dissertation-worthy.
About forgiveness and blasphemy 
[This is a variant addition] about judgment against cities that reject missionaries
About “this generation” seeking a sign, which will not be given
[Following the transfiguration] About how some will not die until seeing the Reign of God come with power
About how one who gives a cup of water receives a reward
About how one must receive the Reign of God like a child to enter
About how anyone who has given up home and family will receive a reward
About how speaking to a mountain and believing will cast it into the sea
Our present text about how the impoverished widow has given more than the rich
About how “this generation” will not pass until the destruction takes place
About how the woman who anointed Jesus with ointment will be remembered
About how one of the twelve will betray him
About how Jesus will not drink wine again until he drinks it anew in the Reign of God
About how Peter will deny him 3x 

44 πάντες γὰρ ἐκ τοῦ περισσεύοντος αὐτοῖς ἔβαλον, αὕτη δὲ ἐκ τῆς 
ὑστερήσεως αὐτῆς πάντα ὅσα εἶχεν ἔβαλεν, ὅλον τὸν βίον αὐτῆς. 
For all gave out of their abundance, but she—out of her poverty—gave all that she was having, her whole life. 
ἔβαλον: AAI 3p, βάλλω, 1) to throw or let go of a thing without caring where it falls 
εἶχεν: IAI 3s, ἔχω, 1) to have, i.e. to hold 
ἔβαλεν: AAI 3s, βάλλω, 1) to throw or let go of a thing without caring where it falls 
The words πάντα, ὅσαand ὅλον can be translated “all.” The widow’s total giving is pretty emphatic. 

One often hears this text interpreted as the heroic, sacrificial giving of a poor widow. “The widow’s mite” has even become a colloquial phrase that refers to someone’s meager bit of contribution, which means far more than its smallness might indicate. I do not wish to dismiss either that interpretation or that application of this text, but I do want to offer a different starting point, which will move in a vastly different direction. 

The key to this text is to keep it as a whole, instead of separating out verses 41-44 from 38-40. The widow’s contribution is contextualized. She is giving heroically and, at the same time, is participating in a system that routinely oppresses her under the guise of piety (v.40). In a profound way, she is acting with nobility and self-sacrifice and is contributing toward an unjust system. She is giving all that she has and she is abetting a system that will take away all that she has. It is truly a tragic situation facing the widow, because her means of practicing true piety is at the same time a system that is devoid of justice and will, in turn, exploit her. 

The option not to separate vv. 38-40 from vv.41-44 means that this text allows for a profound interpretation of living tragically within systems that are oppressive and dehumanizing, yet are still places where one can make self-denying contributions toward the common good. The homiletical directions that this text can take are many – addressing those who try to work conscientiously within a capitalistic system; those who live heroically within a militaristic system that often overreaches and destroys; those who vote for a candidate that is imperfect, but perhaps the least imperfect in one’s judgment. 

Once the option of not participating is ruled out (and I can’t say that Mark rules it out; in fact, I think that might be the option explored in the Parable of the Talents), the tragedy of participating is unavoidable. Is the widow heroic? Yes, indeed. Is she naïve? Maybe, but maybe not. Is she contributing to a system that exploits her? Yes. Can she do otherwise? Maybe not. There are no easy answers given here. Perhaps there is some Niebuhrian realism, where one does the best one can and only ‘proximate goods’ are attainable. At any rate, this is a heart-breakingly true text that many people will identify with. 


  1. I want to believe that the widow exhibits her faith practice for us in contrast to whatever windy pious ones we encounter as true and total worship through her surrender and trust that her God will take care of her even if/when the system fails. Especially today, election day, I've cast my vote but prayed that God will intercede in the actions of all 'winners' and work for the good of this nation in spite of our 'systems' be they good or bad.

  2. I hope your sermon title follows the title of this post. Then your effort to work the phrase into the spoken moment will illustrate the widow's tragiheroic act, striving to live faithfully in a situation that is designed to make you fail.

    Kudos for uniting so effectively the traditional and the more challenging interpretations of this text.

  3. There's always the possibility that this text, for Mark, is a foreshadowing of Christ's "giving his all" in corrupted system...

    1. Which causes me to wonder, though I have found no scholarship on it, was the widow prophetic in her throwing in the coins...forcing Jesus to make the pronouncement against the corrupt system...and could that widow be Mary? Much like in John's gospel, Mary compels Jesus to perform the first miracle at Cana. Interesting to note in icons of the scene, the widow is often depicted wearing blue...

  4. I'm appreciating each of these comments. This is a challenging text that has been dumbed down into a manipulative stewardship device over the years. Ironically, the persons who would use this story as a way to guilt impoverished people into giving are just like the exploitative Scribes who are being criticized by it.

  5. I'm fascinated by/chewing on your treatment of βάλλω and its variants... At first it sounded as is the scribes were "tossing money here and there" as if it had no value (like a politician of note challenging a competitor to a $10,000 bet). Then I thought "the word Mark will use for the widow will be a 'painful' or at least thought-filled giving variant." But no, he uses the same word. Could be that hers was a throwing/giving despite the consequences?

  6. Dwight: I'm not sure if I can detect any particular shades of meaning behind βάλλω, other than it means 'to throw' literally and perhaps it has a figurative use - like when we say 'pitch in.' As you point out, Mark does not seem to imply that the wealthy persons' throwing was anything different than the widow's.
    It is compelling to me that Jesus does not really judge either of their pitching in as 'good' or 'bad.' His observation is about their relative worth and not their absolute worth - they give some out of abundance; she gives all out of poverty.
    Mark places that observation within the context of the Scribe's exploitation of widows and, in the next pericope, the doom of the temple. That makes it very intriguing.

  7. The justice, I believe, comes immediately after this text. The typically clueless Markan disciples marvel at the impressive temple. Jesus retorts, "These stones are coming DOWN!" Can't we tie this judgment to 12:38-44? I think so!

    Seems the impressive temple is morally bankrupt, or something like that. The understated judgment is that God will ultimately cleanse the impurity - analogous to Jesus' cleansing of the temple in chapter 11 and the surrounding issue of the cursed fig tree.

  8. Bill,
    I fully agree. I think the context of the Widow's act is incredibly important, both what precedes and what follows. The destruction of the temple, in this regard, would be a judgment against its failure to be a place of justice. It would also mark the end of at least that kind of exploitation that the widow endures.


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