In an earlier post, I pointed to the six “narrative contexts” that Elizabeth Struthers Malbon outlines as we look at our text. The fourth of those contexts is that of all the women characters in the Markan composition. As I noted, the poor widow travels in the company of the woman with the flow of blood, the Syro-Phoenician woman, and the woman who anoints Jesus for burial. In the other three cases, Jesus responds to the requests and the gifts with approval. 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.
Mary Ann Beavis discusses these four “Women as Models of Faith in Mark” in her 1998 article. The four stories are examples of the ancient Greek literary form known as a chreia. The chreia expressed a saying or action that contained some sort of helpful hint for living. The Greek word actually means “need” or “necessity.” Chreiai (the plural form) are little stories about the “needful things” of a good life. “Ancient readers [I would say “listeners” as well] would have recognized the gospel pronouncement stories as chreiai,” Beavis asserts, “and thus ‘useful for living…’” (page 5).
These little stories were found throughout ancient Greek writings and found their way into the Markan composition as recognizable ways to memorize and tell the big story. Most of the chreiai in Mark detail what Jesus does and says. But we are surprised to find these little stories featuring four women. The four stories total more than can be found in all the major pagan Greek works of the time. “Mark, of the four canonical gospels,” Beavis notes, “has the highest concentration of chreiai about women. Mark’s interest,” she continues, “would have struck a first century reader of the gospel as unusual, and as worthy of special attention” (page5).
If the Markan composer includes something that was “worthy of special attention” for the first listeners, then it should be worthy of our special attention as well. The chreia of the woman with the hemorrhage in Mark 5 has to do with her bold action in touching Jesus’ cloak. The story of the Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark 7 focuses on what she says. The story of the woman who anoints Jesus in Mark 14 focuses again on her action.
Thus, the focus of the chreia in Mark 12 on the action of the widow – putting the two coins into the treasury – is typical of these little stories in the Markan composition. “The widow’s act epitomizes the theme of self-sacrifice which runs through the second half of Mark,” Beavis writes. “She is the only character, other than Jesus and John the Baptist, who gives ‘all her living/life…’ in the service of God, in sharp contrast with the rich man, who keeps the commandments, but cannot bring himself to part with his possessions…” (page 6).
Beavis argues that the Markan composer uses these stories to teach about discipleship. The “actual” disciples tend to demonstrate what discipleship looks like in their failures to function as faithful followers. But the little people in the Markan composition are the ones who provide positive demonstrations of following Jesus. Beavis notes the friends of the paralytic, the father of the possessed boy, and Blind Bartimaeus as instances of such positive demonstrations.
The four women are among those little people who follow faithfully. “These stories are striking because of the rarity of ancient chreiai about women,” Beavis writes, “and because they do not provide models of specifically female virtue, but of faith and discipleship in general…” (page 8). The familiarity of the story form and the surprising gender of the characters would have been both notable and effective, both for members of the Markan community and for those hearing the story (stories) for the first time.
Joanna Dewey, in her 2006 Word and World article suggests that our text “contrasts the widow’s willingness to give her whole life with the scribes’ use of their privilege to exploit others. Mark presents the widow,” she concludes, “as a model for discipleship.” I mention Dewey’s comments because she also makes an interesting suggestion at this point. “This reading may also provide an opportunity to include the story of the woman anointing Jesus at Bethany,” she notes. “In both passages, Mark is presenting women as models of service – one giving her mite and the other acting as a prophet, anointing Jesus with expensive nard” (page 26).
I don’t think I would add the reading from Mark 14 to the gospel lection for the day (but then again, who knows?). But the woman’s story would make an excellent sermon illustration if the message focused on the poor widow as an example of faithful following. As I shared in an earlier post, Elizabeth Struthers Malbon sees our text and the anointing text as one of the narrative contexts to consider. That’s one reason to include the Mark 14 chreia.
In addition, there is some important vocabulary in the latter text that would lead us to make a connection. The poor widow gives her “whole life” as faithful response to God. The woman who anoints Jesus for burial in Mark 14 is to be remembered and proclaimed to “the whole cosmos” for her work of faithful following. The Greek word for “whole” provides a through-line in this part of the Markan composition. The Great Commandment invites us to love God with our “whole” selves. The scribe evaluates the Great Commandment as having more value than all the “whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” The widow gives her “whole life.” The unnamed woman’s story is to be told to the whole cosmos.
Another reason to make a connection to this story and to remind listeners of the unnamed woman’s faithfulness is the command by Jesus in Mark 14 that her story is to be remembered always and told to all. We don’t do very well in obeying and enacting this command. This Markan story only shows up in the reading of Mark’s passion account on Palm Sunday, where it fades into the background of that huge lection. The Lukan parallel shows up as an independent reading, but again the woman is overshadowed by the Lukan dialogue about the nature of forgiveness. The woman becomes a prop rather than a disciple.
Therefore, while we have the chance, perhaps as preachers we should take the gift that is handed to us and use the woman’s story as another illustration of what it means to be a faithful follower, at least from the perspective of the Markan composition.
Dewey takes some time to focus on the unnamed woman. The woman anoints Jesus’ head, rather than his feet as in the parallel accounts. “To anoint on the head is to call that person to God’s service, to consecrate him or her for a special task,” Dewey writes. “Prophets and priests were anointed, but, above all, those chosen to be king were anointed” (page 27). Therefore, the woman functions as a prophet, much like Samuel anointed the head of David. Do you hear any vibrations of the “Son of David” question in Mark 12?
“Nowhere else in Mark is any person or action singled out for future remembrance,” Dewey continues. “As with the widow who gave her mite, the woman of Bethany is held up as a positive example. It is shameful not to read this passage in church,” she declares and again urges us to read it with the story of the widow. “Mark brackets the apocalyptic discourse with these two positive stories of women so this would be an appropriate place to include it” (page 27).
I know that on our liturgical calendar it will be All Saints’ Sunday when our text is read. This notice of the little people in Mark, and especially the women who were the faithful followers, has some nice potential for preaching on such a day. No matter how hard we try as preachers and interpreters to convey a different message, when people think of “saints,” out come the halos and heroes (mostly male in their imaginations, I suspect).
We could spend some time talking about the good news of these ordinary saints who never make headlines and don’t have anything named after them. The command to remember the story of the woman at Bethany can build upon this preaching. We may not know her name, but we know what she did. And we know that Jesus called it a “beautiful thing” that she did for him. All Saints’ Sunday can be a day when we remember all the “beautiful things” that our saints have done for the Lord and his Church in service of the gospel. Perhaps we might take a few moments during worship to have people say out loud the names of the ordinary saints who have entered the new life ahead of us and should be remembered this Sunday.
As I think about these texts, it strikes me as well that we have scriptural warrant for singling out and recognizing underrecognized and underserved groups in our congregations and in the larger world. If the Markan narrator goes to the trouble of using a well-known story form to surprise us with the faithfulness of women, then we have yet another warrant for doing the same in other ways in our lives. The Markan composer employs a sort of narrative “affirmative action” in this regard. Perhaps administrative sorts of preferential treatment for the marginalized are not such a bad thing after all.
References and Resources
Beavis, Mary Ann. “Women as Models of Faith in Mark,” https://www.academia.edu/13080771/Women_as_Models_of_Faith_in_Mark.
Dewey, Joanna. “Women in the Gospel of Mark.” https://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/content/pdfs/26-1_mark/26-1_dewey.pdf.
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.