Flashing Lights Ahead
We Christian preachers must never lose sight of the anti-Judaism that permeates our western history, our American social and political culture, and our various denomination traditions. This is especially acute for those of us in the Lutheran tribe with our connections to Martin Luther’s virulent anti-Semitism (especially but not limited to his later writings) and our connections to the evil engineers of the Holocaust. Therefore, whenever a text has the potential to lead us in anti-Jewish directions, we have to exercise great caution and issue intentional correctives.
I was reminded this morning that a helpful re-balancing of the discussion so far is available on youtube.com. I would encourage you to take an hour and watch Amy-Jill Levine’s 2012 address entitled “From Donation to Diatribe: How Anti-Jewish Interpretation Cashes Out.” You can find that video at https://youtu.be/lksnynNv6UU.
Levine notes that the interpretations of our text break down into two broad types: the widow as moral exemplar vs. the widow as exploited by the “temple domination system.” The latter interpretation is a political critique. Levine notes that the second type of interpretation was really launched by Addison’s Wright’s article, discussed in a previous post. That article was a sort of watershed moment for the interpretation of this text.
A number of the workingpreacher.org commentaries, for example, pick up on this emphasis. “While many interpretations present the widow’s offering as an example of discipleship in keeping with loving God with all one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength,” Amanda Brobst-Renaud observes, recent commentators have questioned whether the widow’s action is an illustration of systemic injustice or the devouring of widow’s houses.”
“This gospel lesson is not about the individual behavior of one scribe,” Samuel Cruz writes, “but about the misinformed and immoral ideology that informed such behavior. Jesus confronts the beliefs and values of his day,” Cruz continues, “that maintained an oppressive system in much more authentic and powerful ways than the Colonial Roman empire could…”
The poor widow “gave it all,” Emerson Powery notes. “Jesus’ observation about the ‘poor widow’ who sacrificed the only economic resources she had left was a natural progression from Jesus’ critique of scribal abuse of the widows’ homes. In the Greek text, this passage flows syntactically from the other one without any evident linguistic break. In light of the context of conflict between Jesus and the temple leaders,” Powery continues, “this story was more likely a condemnation, rather than a commendation; that is, it highlighted the ways the ‘treasury’ (of the scribes) consumed the means of the poor.”
Levine notes that it is, especially in this interpretation, easy to change this text from a window opening us to Jesus into a mirror reflecting our own situations and agendas. This is not on the face of it inappropriate. But it is not the default interpretation either. Yet, it is a powerful way to read the text.
“Jesus was assassinated because he dared to unravel the ideology that maintained the elites in power. I can’t help but wonder what the consequences for the church might be,” Samuel Cruz writes, “if it, like Jesus, turned the values and ideologies of oppression upside down and elevated the values of the kingdom to prominence. If instead of preaching from the perspective of the upper strata of society, it began to reflect and preach from the perspective of the widow, the orphan, the migrant, and the poor. Perhaps the church would no longer be asked to do invocations for political rallies, and maybe powerful politicians will no longer attend our gatherings. I would follow Jesus in exalting the spiritual riches of the widow while letting the rich and powerful keep their scraps.”
Henry Langknecht adds additional texture to this perspective. “First of all, depending on your context and the specific nature of the hypocrisy in the community you serve, it would be powerful to preach into the first part of the gospel lesson. We’d like to identify ourselves with the widow of verses 41-44, but most of us North American Christians are the scribes of verses 38-40. Even when we live simply, we enjoy products and infrastructures whose provision devours the lives of the poor in the world. And no length of prayers can hide us and our love of what we have and what we’ve accomplished.”
I quote these observations at length because they raise critical questions for American Christians and American churches in our time and space. But as preachers and interpreters, we have to ask ourselves and one another two questions – questions that A.J. Levine pursues. Does the text before us actually say these things? And in saying such things do we fall headlong into the anti-Jewish cultural tropes and prejudices which have underwritten nearly two millennia of Christian Anti-Semitism?
In answer to the first question, despite what Wright and later commentators have written, Levine argues, the moral exemplar interpretation is the one best supported by an exegetical reading of the Markan composition. The widow gives all she has and thus is a foil to the rich man in chapter 10. The disciples protested in that chapter that they indeed left all behind, and they are commended by Jesus.
Thus, the widow is an example of someone who “gives her whole life” to the worship of God. In addition, as we have noted previously, the widow foreshadows the complete self-donation of Jesus on the cross. She prepares the listeners for that self-giving and challenges listeners to consider whether they ought to do the same in some way.
“The cruciform existence, or the life of discipleship, according to Mark, involves giving one’s life (Mark 8:34-37),” Amanda Brobst-Renaud writes in her workingpreacher.org commentary. “It is important, however, to keep front and center what consumes us. If we are consumed by honor, power, social media, beauty, or money, they will eat us alive, and they ultimately leave us empty. Emptiness devours us, and it promises a life it cannot give. Part of the task of preaching is to identify hunger for Good News when spiritual junk food is readily on offer. Invite people to taste and see: when you give your whole life to God, it becomes fuller than you imagined.”
Henry Langknecht urges us to focus on this example of self-giving as discipleship and not merely financial stewardship. “A sermon I do not need to hear is the one that entreats me to be more like the faithful widow,” Langknecht argues. “If we must hear a sermon focused on her giving and her gift, let her be a Christ figure rather than a faithful disciple figure. What makes that connection appealing is the difficulty (but rightness) of the forced analogy between her worthless coins and Jesus’ life which leads to the paradox that this worthless gift brings about the salvation of the world (cf. Philippians 2!).”
What’s wrong with Wright, according to Levine? First, she argues, the scribes don’t run the Temple and don’t represent “official Judaism” (whatever that meant in the first century). Second, Jewish tradition is the source of Jesus’ temple critique, not opposed to it. Third, if Jesus was opposed to her actions, why didn’t he stop her? He had no trouble interrupting Temple business earlier in the week.
Fourth, collaboration by Temple authorities and systems with the Romans is not well-supported in historical records. Making accommodations in order to survive is not the same as actively collaborating with the oppressors (although, I would observe, that distinction gets rather slippery rather quickly). Fifth, the Temple gets destroyed in the Jewish War. If it was headquarters for the collaborators, this makes little sense. Sixth, if the Temple was so bad, why did the first Christians worship there (see the Book of Acts, for example)?
Emerson Powery offers a more nuanced view of the Temple in his comments. “Of course, despite centuries of interpretation, Jesus did not criticize the Temple directly here. Rather, he challenged the leadership to practice more just ways. Furthermore,” Powery continues, “his observation about this widow fit the pattern of several prophets who preceded him, in which widows were associated with other vulnerable people, orphans and immigrants (cf. Jeremiah 7:6; Malachi 3:5).”
Levine urges us to separate the scribes from the Temple as such. The Markan composition makes it clear that the scribes are not a monolithic group. After all, we have just heard about the scribe who almost gets it. As much as I like the melodrama metaphor for the Markan composition, that metaphor leads to flat characters and good/evil dichotomies. Levine pleads for a complicated critique of the Temple. Thus, she speaks in approving terms of Malbon’s article and work mentioned in a previous post.
The Temple, in Mark and in the New Testament is both complicit and beloved, Levine argues. The widow is both an independent and faithful moral agent and a victim of extractive and oppressive systems. Wealth is both the greatest roadblock to faithfulness and a tool for loving one’s neighbor as oneself. Poverty is both a great evil (when imposed on people) and a way to clear the path to God (when chosen voluntarily).
“This can help frame 12:41-44,” writes Micah Kiel. “This text isn’t necessarily saying that everyone needs always to give everything. Instead, the widow has decided that her money, what little of it she had, belonged to God. This text, then, consistent with Mark’s overall agenda, is about perspective and reevaluation. Those things that are valued in the kingdom of God differ from that in wider society.”
When a text tempts us into unthinking anti-Jewish images, we should notice the flashing warning sign along the way: “Danger! Complications ahead!” And we (I) must continue to proceed with caution.
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.