Worship, the Poor and Life or Death Decisions in Mark's Gospel

In Mark’s Gospel, the greatest commandment, Jesus says, is to love God with everything and your neighbour as yourself (12:29-30). (Elsewhere on this blog I reflected on the connection between God and neighbour.) I think Jesus is stressing that the truth of my confession to love God is measured by the extent to which I love my neighbour. These are inextricable.

The teacher of the law who asked the original question commends Jesus, and takes the risky step of alienating the Temple aristocrats and religious leaders by saying this kind of neighbour love is far more important than the performance of worship (12-33-35).

Such a move allows Jesus to launch into an astonishing diatribe against the religious leaders (Mark 12:38-40).

As he taught, Jesus said, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. Such men will be punished most severely.”

Devouring widows houses is an interesting charge. I suspect it’s to do with taking a poor widows house in exchange for her religious contributions. She signs over her house, so to speak, on the death of her husband so that she can continue to use the Temple, and the proceeds are used to pay the living expenses of the leaders and enable them to make their long prayers. Their piety is a convenient cover for thievery.

This is then followed by a familiar story of ‘the widow’s mite’ – the poor widow who gives out of her poverty all that she has to live on (Mark 12:41-44).

Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny.

Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

Usually this passage is used to make a call for sacrificial giving, or to extol  the spirituality of poverty. But I wonder.

Is it not a statement by Jesus against a system that forces the poor into these life or death decisions? As they watched this widow, they must have known that by giving what she gave she was now going away to die – it was, after all, in Jesus own words, ‘all that she had to live on’. And it was the religious caste which forced this decision upon her.

Was Jesus making a comment about the kind of faith that can live in a world in which people must make these forms of decisions – like last winter, the common situation where older people made a choice to be warm or to be fed?

No wonder then, that in the previous chapter, the incident of the cursed Fig Tree stands as such a chilling parable (11:12-14; 20-21). If the faith we practice sits comfortably in a world in which the poor must make these decisions, then our love for God and our worship , measured against our love for neighbour, is a sham, empty, useless and dead, like the fig tree.

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