Rich scribes and poor widows: reading Mark 12.38-44 with Ched Myers and Addison Wright


May 14, 2013 by jmar198013

mitesAs he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he 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. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” (Mark 12.38-44 NRSV)

When you read something into the text that is not there, it is called eisegesis. But is there a name for the phenomenon of missing what is plainly there–reading over something that actually is in the text? I would suggest that this is something that happens more often than we realize when we read Scripture. It may simply be a matter of missing the significance of key words or phrases, and failing to heed their cues. It may also come from failing to see subtle developments in the plot lines of biblical narratives–how certain movements in the text relate to and build off of one another. It may also have to do with failing to discern an author’s overall agenda, so that we miss how a certain saying or vignette in one of the Gospels serves its author’s particular end. Whatever the case, it happens with some regularity. We miss the point that the author is trying to make and substitute another lesson–one which may not be bad in itself, but does not fit the author’s intent, and causes us to lose a valuable insight. For lack of a better name for this phenomenon, I shall coin the admittedly unwieldy junk Greek term glossegesis***–glossing over something we don’t quite “get” by assigning it a meaning that makes sense to us.

One passage of Scripture that has fallen victim to what I am calling glossegesis is the story of the widow’s lepta in Mark 12. Time out of mind, this passage has been a go-to for preacher boys (and televangelists) who want to make a point about giving as a leap of faith. The emphasis is put on the poor widow’s “giving all she had to live on” to God in an act of trusting service. We shall soon see why this reading is problematic; at very least, it provides an easy mechanism to exploit the poor. But Ched Myers notes that even more tempered readings of the text lead us down a deceitful interpretive path:

[B]ourgeois scholarship, oblivious to Mark’s critique of the political economy of the temple, portrays the … theme as the contrast between the religious hypocrisy of the scribes and the genuine piety of the poor woman. (Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, 20th anniversary ed. [Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2008], 320)

Myers is onto something: we are missing a textual cue that is in plain sight. We assume that Jesus sees a poor woman giving her last little coins to God and is pleased about this. So we weave a moral based on this fact: it doesn’t matter what one gives, but the faith in which it is given. Or, offerings to God ought to be in proportion to what one has–the poor widow has upstaged the rich. Or, we ought to go and do like the poor widow and give everything. The conceit behind all these interpretations–all rife with opportunities for exploiting the vulnerable and desperate–is, again, that the woman was giving her last lepta to God; and that Jesus was pleased by this and holding the woman up as an object lesson. Problem is, Jesus didn’t actually say anything about the widow’s attitude or faith or rationale for giving the coins. And he certainly didn’t attach to it the “go and do likewise” we would expect from him if he were holding up her act as an object lesson. As I said, there’s a textual cue we are not seeing, and our lack of vision leads us to grasp for meanings. Here’s the cue. In 12.40, Jesus calls out the scribes by saying: They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. And then in 12.42-44, a widow appears and gives her last two lepta to the temple treasury. And Jesus says of this: she out of her poverty has put in … all she had to live on. In other words, he is not praising her for donating her last lepta; he is pointing to her as a specimen of the exploitation of the poor widows by the Jewish leaders. She is not there to have her faith praised–she is there for the damnation of the ruling Jewish elite.

Read it more like this: Jesus charges the scribes with devouring widows’ houses. Then he sees a poor widow coming in and putting her last two coins in the temple hoard. And he says, “See that?! That’s what I’m talking about!” He was pointing her out as a widow who was having her house devoured. 

Addison Wright, whom Ched Myers references in his comments on this passage, puts it this way:

Is it likely then that the Marcan Jesus who was offended by such abuses of Corban [Mark 7.10-13] would enthuse over the widow’s contribution? Could he enthuse without contradicting himself? . . . Jesus condemns those scribes who devour the houses of widows, and then follows immediately the story of a widow whose house has beyond doubt just been devoured . . . If, indeed, Jesus is opposed to the devouring of widows’ houses, how could he possibly be pleased with  what he sees here? . . . It would seem that the only way out of these acute difficulties is quite simply to see Jesus’ attitude to the widow’s gift as a downright disapproval and not as an approbation . . .  Jesus’ saying is not a penetrating insight on the measuring of gifts; it is a lament. (“The Widow’s Mites: Praise or Lament?–A Matter of Context,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 44 [1982] 261-62, emphasis mine)

Myers goes on to explain Jesus’ scrutiny of the widow’s offering as a damning indictment of the wealthy scribes:

Scribal affluence is a product of their ‘devouring the estates of widows under the pretext of saying long prayers’ . . . Through their public reputation for piety and trustworthiness (hence the ‘pretext of long prayers’), scribes would earn the legal right to administrate estates. As compensation they would usually get a percentage of the assets; the practice was notorious for embezzlement and abuse . . . The vocation of Torah Judaism is to ‘protect widows and orphans,’ yet in the name of piety these socially vulnerable classes are being exploited while the scribal class is further endowed . . . [S]cribal piety has been debunked as a thin veil for economic opportunism and exploitation . . . The temple has robbed this woman of her very livelihood (12:44). Like the scribal class, it no longer protects widows, but exploits them. (Binding the Strong Man, 320-22)

Thus is Mark 12.38-44 unglossified so that we may see how truly nasty were the things going down in high places in Jesus’ day, and how Jesus confronted them with an unapologetic honesty that might make some of us cringe. He wasn’t praising the poor widow for her trusting gift; he was giving the religious and political elite the hell they so rightly deserved for creating and perpetuating a society that conditions widows like her to give away money she needed to feed herself with.

***Per Matt Matheson, a more serviceable term would be “hypergesis”–reading “over” the text. Thanks, Matt!



3 thoughts on “Rich scribes and poor widows: reading Mark 12.38-44 with Ched Myers and Addison Wright

  1. matichuk says:

    Great post! I love Myers take on this (and other things). Love your glossegesis coinage!

    • jmar198013 says:

      Definitely–God has given the church a strange and wonderful gift in Ched Myers. The irony of how the story is typically read is that when it is used as an object lesson about the measuring of gifts, it can easily become a tool to do the very thing Jesus was calling the scribes out over: exploiting those who, like the widow, are vulnerable.

  2. […] For more background on my reading of the Mark passage, see my Rich Scribes and Poor Widows. […]

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