In one of his poems, Daniel Berrigan writes,
It may be expedient to lose everything.
The moon says it, waxing in silence, the fruit of the heavens,
grape vine, melon vine.
Autumn upon us, the exemplar, the time of falling.
One who has lost all is ready to be born into all:
buddha moon socratic moon jesus moon
light and planet and fruit of all:
“unless the grain falling to earth die, itself remains alone.”[i]
I wonder if the widow in today’s Gospel reading thought it was expedient to lose everything. A traditional reading of the story portrays the widow as an example of generosity and trust. The “widow’s mite” has come to symbolize the virtue of sacrificial giving.
The problem with the scribes, the legal experts who work for the Temple, and the rich, is that they give stingily, from their abundance, rather than giving until it hurts like the widow. It seems the compilers of the lectionary have intentionally placed this reading from Mark right in the middle of stewardship season, providing preachers with a handy story to shake down their parishioners for a more generous pledge!
Be that as it may, I’m not sure it quite captures the point of the story. Many contemporary commentators take a different, more contextual, approach. They point out that Jesus has just condemned the scribes for their hypocrisy and pious pretentiousness, covering over their exploitation of the poor with a thin veneer of religiosity. The Temple tax system benefited the Jewish aristocracy at the expense of the peasants. Jesus says that when these scribes gather at their banquets, they are feasting on widow’s houses!
So, when this widow comes along and places her last little bit of money into the Temple treasury, it is as if Jesus is saying, “Look here, see what I mean!” On this reading, the widow is not a hero to be imitated, but rather a victim to be pitied; perhaps even someone who is complicit in her own oppression. We should be outraged by the injustice of a system that strips her of everything she has and leaves her destitute – all in the name of God.
Paul Nuechterlein suggests another, somewhat more complex, way to think about this unnamed widow. Like so many unnamed women in Mark’s Gospel, she actually is a prophet.[ii] She is in the company of the hemorrhaging women who touches Jesus, the Syrophoenician woman who argues with Jesus until he heals her daughter, and the anonymous woman who anoints Jesus with costly oil before his death.[iii] All of them engage in prophetic action by crossing boundaries to address human suffering and injustice. They are not only victims. They are agents of healing and reconciliation.
Jesus tells us that this widow has given everything she has, her “whole life.” Does her whole life consist of a couple of coins? To what or whom has she given her whole life? To the Temple? I wonder if giving her last dime to the Treasury wasn’t actually a creative act of public protest, rather like Jesus’ advice to those taken to debtor’s court to strip naked in front of the judge to shame their creditors.[iv]
While other are rattling their money bags, making a show of their piety, this poor widow boldly walks into the Temple and throws in her coins as an act of freedom. She knows what Jesus knows: this Temple isn’t going to last.[v] They can have her coins. She has given her whole life to something much larger and more enduring than the Temple, and she knows her worth in ways that the scribes who devour her house will never be able to calculate.
That’s how I like to imagine this widow: marching into Jerusalem with Jesus waving a sign that says, “Widows Matter,” while the scribes, who think everything is about them, insist that “All People Matter.” This widow isn’t a model of sacrificial giving, but rather a model of resisting unjust systems built on human sacrifice. She isn’t a victim, but rather an agent of God’s kingdom of justice and peace. Like the other, unnamed women of Mark’s Gospel, she gets what it means to follow Jesus, while the male disciples are still scratching their heads.[vi] She has given her whole life to follow the Way of Jesus.
Remember the rich man who came to Jesus earlier in Mark’s Gospel? He asked what he needed to do to gain eternal life. Jesus looked at him and loved him, saying, “You lack one thing; go sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Remember that rich man? He went away shocked and grieving, not because Jesus wanted his money. The money was for the poor, restitution for the dispossessed. Jesus didn’t want his money. He wanted his whole life. The rich man wasn’t willing to give it – at least not yet. But this widow – Jesus tells us – she gave her whole life. She already has inherited eternal life.
It is stewardship season, and, yes, the church wants your money. That is the easy part. Jesus doesn’t just want our money. What he wants is something much more. He wants our whole life. He wants us to be one of those seeds that falls into the ground and dies, so that we can bear much fruit.[vii]
In the end, I believe the widow did think it was expedient to lose everything: not as a passive victim, nor in some egocentric gesture of asceticism, but as a bold and creative leap of faith in the service of a larger wholeness for her people and for the world. That it what it means to inherit eternal life: to understand oneself as part of this larger wholeness, and to act in accord with that awareness.
In her poem, “One or Two Things,” Mary Oliver confesses,
For years and years I struggled
just to love my life. And then
rose, weightless, in the wind.
“Don’t love your life
too much,” it said,
into the world.[viii]
In Mark’s Gospel, we never learn the name of this widow, or of the other prophetic women who follow Jesus. They vanish into the world; not because they do not love their lives, but because they place that love in the service of a larger wholeness. The give their whole life. They inherit eternal life. It may be expedient to lose everything to be born into all.
[i] Daniel Berrigan, “No One Knows Whether Death, Which Men in Their Fear Call the Greatest Evil, May Not Be the Greatest Good,” in And the Risen Bread (New York: Fordham University Press, 1998), p. 172.
[ii] Paul Nuechterlien, viewed at http://girardianlectionary.net/year_b/proper27b.htm.
[iii] See Mark 5:25-34, 7:24-30, and 14:3-9.
[iv] Matthew 5:40, cf. Luke 6:29.
[v] Mark 13:1-2.
[vi] Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, “The Poor Widow in Mark and Her Poor Rich Readers,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly (Vol. 53, 1991), pp. 599 – 600. It does make one wonder if the author of Mark wasn’t a woman.
[vii] John 12:24-26.
[viii] Mary Oliver, “Blue Heron,” in White Pine: Poems and Prose (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1991), p. 20.