Whether the longer or shorter gospel reading is selected for today’s liturgy, the context deserves attention. Jesus is teaching the crowds in theTemple. He knows the vulnerability of many of the people around him and issues a warning about the grandiose behaviour of theJerusalem scribes. The scribes constituted a class of men on whom the people relied for rulings in matters of sacred law as well as for drawing up contracts and other important documents. They were literate and generally learned. They commanded the respect of many of the people.
Jesus is not impressed. He sees their pomposity as a mask for dishonesty and exploitation: they will receive the ‘greater condemnation’. They ‘devour the houses of widows’ and hide behind the pretext of long prayers. Widows included women bereaved through the death of a husband, divorced women, or single unmarried women. They were women alone without male protection in a patriarchal society and without the benefit of a social security system. They were dependent for survival upon the care of family and community. Jesus’ words of condemnation are strong words that will understandably provoke a reprisal. It is no surprise that the Jerusalem scribes are among those who later conspire to kill him (Mark 14:1).
It is easy enough to be taken in by the posturing of those who present as superior and who look for status recognition. It is also easy to miss the goodness of those on the edge even if it is happening before our very eyes. The context presents Jesus as attuned to the plight of the widows. He now notices and draws the attention of his disciples to the action of one particular ‘destitute’ widow. Her tiny contribution to the treasury of two copper coins for the upkeep of the Temple is far more significant than the big sums contributed by the wealthy out of their excess.
I s this woman being presented as the victim of an unjust system that extracts from her what she cannot afford, as some commentators insist? Or is the Markan Jesus presenting her as a free agent, a model of discipleship, who offers everything she has, her whole life? It may not be necessary to choose between these two interpretations. It is clear that this woman’s action provides a striking contrast to that of the scribes, as will the action of another woman who a little later in the story pours an abundance of healing ointment over the head of Jesus as he faces the prospect of death. As the gospel draws to a close, then, we find two stories of extravagantly generous unnamed women, stories told in memory of their gospel foolishness.