Hero, Victim, Or…?
We have established the identity of the “villains” in the Markan melodrama. What about the role of the widow in this scene? Is the poor widow the hero or the victim in the story? If only it were that simple!
Many of us have heard (and some of us have preached) sermons that make the widow a heroic exemplar of authentic Christian discipleship, faith, and financial stewardship. But that interpretation makes the poor widow a mere prop for church stewardship campaigns and an emotional weapon for charlatans who are much more like the scribes in Mark 12 than like the widow. When we as interpreters valorize the widow for giving “her whole life,” we take that very life from her and make her a tool.
She becomes a tool that provides a “point” for the story. Addison Wright categorizes several of these points in his article. One point is that she gives one hundred percent, even though the raw amount is almost nothing. In this view, “the true measure of gifts is the self-denial involved, the cost for the giver” (A. Wright, page 257).
Another point is that the amount of the gift is irrelevant. What matters is the spirit in which the gift is given, the attitude by which the gift is applied. This attitude may be self-sacrifice, surrender, total commitment, faithfulness, gratitude, generosity, humility, trust in God’s providence, and/or detachment from possessions.
Others suggest that the point is simply that real disciples give everything. Or it may be that giving should be proportional to one’s means. Or it may simply be the Markan way of commending almsgiving by the congregation.
After this inventory (which covers most of the sermons on this text I have heard or commentaries I have read), Wright notes that Jesus does in fact give an evaluation of her gift. She gave out of her “lack” while the rich gave out of their “overabundance.” But, as Wright notes, beyond this observation, there is no information in the text to support the extrapolations made in the various points above.
Jesus doesn’t describe anything interior to the widow. He simply says that she gave “her whole life.” Wright concludes, “Any statement, therefore, about the inner disposition or outward bearing of the widow is achieved only by reading into the text” (page 258). Of course, we preachers can and do extrapolate all we want (and with relative impunity). But if we want to be subject to the text, rather than the other way around, then we extrapolate at our preacherly peril.
Wright’s critique of the “example” model of interpretation here is worth quoting at length. Any such interpretation, he argues, “runs into the difficulty that there is no invitation in the text to imitate the widow, no statement that Jesus looked on her and loved her, no command to go and do in like manner, no remark that she is not far from the kingdom. That her action is to be imitated may be implied,” he continues, “but it equally well may not be implied. Jesus simply says that she gave more,” he concludes, “and he gives his reason for making that statement” (page 259).
Wright notes that if we put the action of the widow alongside Jesus’ statement about the “Corban” practice in Mark 7, that Jesus would likely have found her action to be painful rather than positive. In the Markan account, Wright suggests, Jesus “is remembered for having said that human needs take precedence over religious values when they conflict, that God gave the law not for itself but for people, and that religious values are human values” (page 261). Given the larger context of the Markan composition, it seems unlikely on the face of it that Jesus is commending the action of the widow.
Wright argues that the best way to understand the text is to look at the very immediate context of the passage. In that context, “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. What other words,” he asks, “would be more appropriate to describe it?” (page 261).
Wright concludes that Jesus, therefore, must disapprove of the widow’s gift. His assessment of the widow’s actions, Wright argues, is not praise but rather lament (page 262). Jesus does not condemn the widow and thus doubly victimize her, Wright implies (but does not state). Instead, “Jesus condemns the value system that motivates her action, and he condemns the people who conditioned her to do it” (page 262). Wright sees the widow exclusively as a “victim” and is sure that is how Jesus sees her as well.
Worst of all, Wright argues, the widow’s tragedy is completed in the first two verses of chapter thirteen. Jesus describes the coming destruction of the Temple – the very Temple which the widow gave “her whole life” to support. “Her contribution was totally misguided,” Wright declares, “thanks to the encouragement of official religion, but the final irony of it all was that is was also a waste” (page 263).
Elizabeth Struthers Malbon both critiques and builds upon Wright’s conclusions and insights. While Wright points a microscope at the three verses preceding and the two verses succeeding the widow’s story, Malbon takes more of a telescopic approach and outlines at least six narrative contexts that can assist us in our interpretation. I’ll list those contexts here, but I’d commend the article for a fuller discussion of each.
The first context is the contrast between the widow and the scribes. This context highlights the differences between Jesus and the scribes and takes us back to the first post of this week. The second narrative context relates to the destruction of the temple. The widow’s contribution to a failing and failed institution is an ironic sign pointing to Jesus’ fulfillment of the purpose of the Temple in his own death and resurrection. The widow’s giving of her whole life foreshadows Jesus’ giving of his whole life “as a ransom for many.”
A third narrative context is the framing of Mark 13 by two stories of gifts from women. Here we have the poor widow’s gift. In Mark 14 we have the gift of anointing from the unnamed woman in the house of Simon the Leper. “The central discourse [of Mark 13] is framed by two stories about exemplary women,” Malbon argues, “in contrast with villainous men” (page 598). The gifts may be quite different in cash value “but each gift represents self-denial” (page 599).
A fourth narrative context is that of all the women characters in the Markan composition. The poor widow travels in the company of the woman with the flow of blood, the Syro-Phoenician woman, and the aforementioned woman who anoints Jesus for burial. In the other three cases, Jesus responds to the requests and the gifts with approval. It seems to me that this tempers Wright’s thesis somewhat. Malbon argues that these women are surprising disciples who more closely resemble Jesus than do the male disciples. And they most clearly and poignantly portray lastness becoming firstness.
A fifth narrative context is the overall theme in the Markan account of Jesus as “Teacher.” The widow provides Jesus with a “teachable moment” as he continues to train and prepare his disciples. His description of her behavior is prefaced with a solemn oath (“Amen”) in verse 43. “Giving one’s ‘whole life’ is required of the Messiah,” Malbon writes, “and it may also be required of his followers” (page 601).
A sixth and final narrative context is the way characters are portrayed in the Markan composition. The widow is one of the “good” little people in the Markan script. We discussed some that context in our reflections on Blind Bartimaeus.
Malbon notes that there may certainly be other contexts in which the story can and should be read. It’s not the case that any one of them is the “right” context. That’s not some sort of reader-response argument on her part. It is in the nature, rather, of the Markan composition. Reading the Markan script is complicated, just like the life of the disciple. But the Markan composition, including this story, is not a blank slate upon which we get to draw whatever we wish. “We are not free to assume that the text can mean anything,” Malbon argues, “just because it can mean many things” (page 603).
I have not run through this range of interpretive possibilities in order to argue for one or another. Is the poor widow a hero or a victim in this story? The answer, as is often case in the life of disciples, is “Yes.” Amanda Brobst-Renaud writes in her workingpreacher.org commentary, “Regardless of whether the widow’s offering is an example or a critique, it is crucial to remember that the house of God is not a place to devour widows. It is not a place where anyone should be devoured. There is a difference between giving everything and having everything taken away.”
Examining the multiple (and ironically linked) contexts in the Markan composition can move us to examine the multiple (and ironically linked) contexts of our own lives. “The text begs the question,” Brobst-Renaud writes, “What consumes our whole lives? Where do we put our energy, our finances, our time, and our patience? What results or recognition do we expect in return?”
Some of our contexts include ideologies, causes, institutions, and practices that in fact require our whole lives. For some, the world of political identities has become all-consuming and the framework for enacting existential crises. Capitalist economics claims, at least in theory, to be able to satisfy every need and explain ever failure. White supremacy is a totalizing explanation of reality that places white males at the top of the hierarchy and requires all others to know their places. Polarization is, in a very real sense, the competition of various world views to claim “our whole lives.”
Thus, we disciples must ask ourselves the most serious question. What is demanding our whole lives? Does that something deserve what we have to give?
References and Resources
FLEDDERMANN, HARRY. “A Warning about the Scribes (Mark 12:37b-40).” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 1, Catholic Biblical Association, 1982, pp. 52–67, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43716182.
MALBON, ELIZABETH STRUTHERS. “The Poor Widow in Mark and Her Poor Rich Readers.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 53, no. 4, Catholic Biblical Association, 1991, pp. 589–604, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43718348.
WRIGHT, ADDISON G. “The Widow’s Mites: Praise or Lament?—A Matter of Context.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 2, Catholic Biblical Association, 1982, pp. 256–65, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43709756.