During the last one week (3-9 February 2014) I was sharing at the CASA Community (an online church). Rafael Vallejo (PhD), minister and teaching elder at Queen St East Presbyterian Church, Toronto, Ontario, invited me to share with the community for a second time. An year before I shared some of my theological reflections with the same community for a week (i.e., fourteen reflections). This second time, he requested me to share from Mark 12:38-13:2 in relation to the poor and the Dalits in India. Rafael Vallejo suggested this topic after seeing my short reflection at the recently published Global Perspectives on the Bible (see Johnson Thomaskutty, “The Widow’s Offering and Dalit Theology”, Global Perspectives on the Bible [New Jersey: Pearson, 2014]: pp. 249-251). The following were my fourteen reflections (here, Reflections 1-5) from the passage.
Reflection One: Jesus’ teaching in Mark 12:38-40 emphasizes three significant things. First, the scribes, though already a socially ranked group of people, attempt their best to increase their status quo by all means. They like to walk around in long robes as esteemed people. The ‘robes’ (Gk. ‘stolais’) they wear are long garments usually worn by priests, kings, and persons of distinction. They love to be ‘greeted with respect’ (Gk. ‘aspasmous’) in the ‘marketplaces’ (Gk. ‘agorais’). Marketplaces are the spots where both the rich and the poor often meet. The poor people are expected to greet the scribes in front of others, especially all those who come for buying and selling. As a custom the scribes would have visited the marketplaces in order to be greeted by the poor. They prefer to have the ‘best seats’ in the synagogues. The Greek word ‘prōtokathedrias’ means ‘chief seats’. From this one can understand that the scribes were aspiring to get first class seats on the basis of their social status. This tendency of the scribes often resulted in intra-synagogue classisms. The scribes also wished to have places of honor at banquets. Thus both in religious functions and in social gatherings the scribes attempted to maintain their hierarchy and hegemony. Second, they ‘devour’ (Gk. ‘katesthontes’) widows’ houses and for the sake of ‘appearance’ (Gk. ‘prophasei’) say ‘long’ (Gk. ‘makra’) prayers. The Greek word ‘katesthontes’ means ‘eat up’, ‘consume’, ‘make a prey’, and ‘plunder’. The expression here states that the scribes exploited, both financially and sexually, a considerable number of widows in Israel. The woman of Mark 12:41-44 can be considered as a victim of the evil practices of the scribes. In this context, their prayers are considered as ‘pretence’. Third, the scribes will receive the greater ‘condemnation’ (Gk. ‘krima’) from God. From the overall passage, we understand that the scribes were a group of people who exploited the poor and the marginalized of the society and for that the widow of Mark 12:41-44 is a living example.
Reflection Two: Mark 12:41 narrates: “He [Jesus] sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums”. Three things are observable in this verse. First, Jesus’ ‘sitting’ is not pictured as an accidental happening, but as an intentional activity. The Greek word used for ‘sitting’ is ‘kathisas’ that can mean ‘to cause to sit’ or ‘place’, ‘to be appointed’, ‘to be seated’, and like. From this peculiar expression one needs to understand that something ‘caused’ Jesus to sit down opposite the ‘treasury’ (Gk. ‘gadzophulakion’). Second, Jesus was not ‘seeing’ things accidentally, but intentionally. The Greek word used for seeing is ‘etheōrei’ that can mean ‘to be a spectator’, ‘to gaze on’, ‘to contemplate’, ‘to consider’, ‘to perceive’, ‘to watch’, or ‘to observe’. These English expressions show that Jesus was thoroughly watching people’s activity of giving in the temple. Third, Jesus parallels the ‘many rich people’ with their ‘large (sums)’. The Greek expressions ‘polloi’ (many [rich men]) and ‘polla’ (much [sums]) reveal that there were many rich people in Jerusalem and that the temple was affluent. Jesus identified the riches of ‘many’ and the financial stability of the temple. Thus the narrator of the story brings the following three things into the fore: first, Jesus was ‘sitting’ opposite the treasury with a purpose; second, he was ‘observing’ the people and their activity of giving unto God; and third, he was ‘identifying’ the ‘many rich men’ and their ‘much (sums)’.
Reflection Three: Mark 12:42 narrates: “A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny”. Three significant things can be noticed from this verse. First, the narrator introduces the ‘status’ of a ‘journeying woman’ over against the status of ‘many rich men’. She might be ‘coming’ (Gk. ‘elthousa’) after a tiresome long walk. She is a ‘widow’ (Gk. ‘chēra’), hence was not cared by anyone. She was a ‘poor’ (Gk. ‘Ptōchē’), hence was a needy woman. Second, the story-teller reveals her ‘activity’ of putting into ‘two small copper coins’ (Gk. ‘lepta duo’) into the treasury. Here ‘many rich people’ are contrasted with ‘one’ (Gk. ‘mia’) ‘poor widow’ and the ‘large sums’ (see v. 41) are with ‘two small copper coins’. Third, the narrator explains the comparative ‘value’ of the amount she put in. The two copper coins she put in worth a penny, which was the principal silver coin of the Roman Empire. Three things are observable in the story: first, the woman’s ‘status’ is comparatively much lesser than the status of the many rich men; second, the ‘activity’ of the woman is mentioned in comparison to the activity of the men; and third, the ‘value’ of her offering is brought to the fore in relation to the value of the offering of men. While the rich-men get collective attention (v. 41), the poor-widow-woman gets particular attention (v. 42).
Reflection Four: Mark 12:43 describes: “Then he [Jesus] called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury’”. We need to pay attention on three significant things. First, the narrator describes that ‘Jesus called his disciples and said to them’. Here Jesus’ ‘calling’ is intended to teach the disciples some new lessons. While Jesus was sitting and observing people’s activity of putting offerings into the treasury, the disciples distance themselves from Jesus and from the scene. They would have been engaged in their own business. The Greek expression ‘proskalesamenos’ (i.e., ‘summoning’, ‘inviting’) provides us an implicit clue about disciples’ distanced position. Second, the woman gets all the ‘praising’ from Jesus as he reckons her activity with significance. Third, Jesus is ‘contrasting’ her activity with that of the activity of her male counterparts. The lessons we learn from here are: first, Jesus measures not as the world measures; second, he honors the dishonored poor-widow-woman whereas the honored rich-men dishonored; and third, the disciples learned a significant lesson from the life of the poor woman.
Reflection Five: In Mark 12:44a, Jesus says: “For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty”. Three things are significant here. First, Jesus groups ‘all’ (Gk. pantes) those men who contributed as one category over against the single poor woman. It was one of the customary practices that multitudes of people, all who were rich and honored, come and share their wealth into the treasury. This was one of the ways through which the rich people showed their affluence before the general public. Second, all (people) whom Jesus identifies contribute out of their abundance. They have enough at stock; hence they contribute a minute portion to the treasury. In that way, they do not risk anything in life at all. Third, the woman contributes out of her poverty. She doesn’t have a place to return, somebody to take care of her, or a portion of money to keep aside. She had only two copper coins and that she contributes to the treasury. That means, her contribution was hundred percent. She risks a lot of things to make this contribution happen. We can learn the following lessons from this verse: first, Jesus does not expect our ordinary donations, but extra-ordinary ones; second, a contribution that causes us to risk a lot is an extra-ordinary contribution; and third, Jesus takes side with the poor, needy, and the marginalized. [will be continued . . . Reflections 6-10]
Reflections by Johnson Thomaskutty, Union Biblical Seminary, Pune, India