The "widow" bracket: A fig tree, tables overturned, and a temple to be destroyed impacts our discipleship (Mark 11–13)
Anyone who has taken the time to visit the Wasted Evangelism site knows I have been interacting with material on Christian hospitality and issues of homelessness. I was re-introduced, recently, to a section of Mark’s Gospel that provoked even further thought on such subjects: Mark 11, the cursing of the fig tree and Jesus’ references to Jeremiah’s “den of robbers” when he overturned the tables in the temple court. Most read these Mark 11 episodes and do not tie them back to their Old Testament contexts (which Mark does on a narrative level), nor forward to the poor widow episode in the very next chapter (which Mark most certainly does at the narrative level).
Mark actually guides the reader through a series of episodes that connect back to the widow of the Old Testament and forward to the widow episode in chapter 12. For those patient enough to wade through this material from my Wasted Evangelism book, please note that unless otherwise indicated, throughout this section the widow or simply widow is meant as a synecdoche, indicating the whole of vulnerable widows and, if the context allows, the larger group of vulnerable people: orphans, foreigners, the poor, the fatherless, etc.
Mark is known for his bracketing structures that help guide his readers/listeners through the narrative. There is an overlooked bracket in the Jerusalem-temple entrance-exit segment of the Gospel (Mark 11–13). The maltreatment of the widow brackets Jesus’ entrance into the temple area and his exit (Mark 11:11—13:2). These brackets can be seen in how the OT frames this segment of Mark’s Gospel.
The Jeremiah-widow context:
“Do not trust in deceptive words, saying, ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’ For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly practice justice between a man and his neighbor, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place, nor walk after other gods to your own ruin, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers forever and ever. Behold, you are trusting in deceptive words to no avail” (Jer 7:4–8).
The Exodus-widow context:
“You shall not afflict any widow or orphan. If you afflict him at all, and if he does cry out to Me, I will surely hear his cry; and My anger will be kindled, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless” (Exod 22:22–24).
The Malachi-widow context:
“‘Then I will draw near to you for judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers and against the adulterers and against those who swear falsely, and against those who oppress the wage earner in his wages, the widow and the orphan, and those who turn aside the alien and do not fear Me,’ says the Lord of hosts” (Mal 3:5).
The widow is present in temple charges
As the bracketing above shows, the widow is embedded throughout this section in key events. When Jesus had interrupted the commerce in the Court of the Gentiles (Mark 11:15–18), reference is made to Jeremiah’s temple sermon: “And He began to teach and say to them, ‘Is it not written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations”? But you have made it a robbers’ den’” (Mark 11:17). The indictment comes from Jeremiah 7:11 in which Yahweh declares that his house/temple had become a den of robbers. The preceding context (Jer 7:4–8) indicates the foundation for the charge (v. 11) and offers a fuller background to evaluate the significance of the thread of conflicts in Mark 11–12, as well as the presence of the economically vulnerable widow (12:41–44) in the temple courts and her presence behind the temple-threat (13:2). In the Jeremiah context, the widow is present as the nation of Israel is called to repentance, a return to Exodus covenant land-laws (e.g., Exod 22:22–24; Lev 19:9–10; 23:22; Deut 14:28–29; 24:19–21) that would forestall judgment:
Do not trust in deceptive words, saying, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.” For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly practice justice between a man and his neighbor, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place, nor walk after other gods to your own ruin, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers forever and ever. Behold, you are trusting in deceptive words to no avail (Jer 7:4–8).
Israelite leadership had a false sense of security. They had ignored the covenant warnings (e.g., Exod 22:22–24). Yet, despite their neglect of Torah land-stipulations regarding the care of the impoverished and their disregard for justice, the leaders believed the temple would receive special protection from God’s judgment because it was his dwelling (Jer 7:4–8). Such faith was misplaced and to no avail (Jer 7:8) for the temple will be destroyed (Jer 7:12–15; Mal 3:1–5; Mark 13:2). Additionally, the OT reference in Mark 11:17 also reflects Isaiah 56:7 (My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples) in which the prophet exhorted, Preserve justice and do righteousness because Yahweh’s salvation is about to come and His righteousness to be revealed (56:1). Yet the prophetic voice goes unheeded (note 56:10–12).
The widow connection is further confirmed by Mark’s reference to selling doves as part of the description of the “buying and selling in the temple” (11:15). (Note Lev 5:11; 12:8; 14:22, a poor leper!; and, 14:30.) Mark draws upon the maltreatment of the poor through an obvious OT reference to a Levitical provision for the impoverished:
But if he cannot afford a lamb, then he shall bring to the Lord his guilt offering for that in which he has sinned, two turtledoves or two young pigeons, one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering (Lev 5:7).
Could it be that Jesus is condemning the “concept of a Temple tax”? Robert Gundry infers as much when he writes regarding the table-turning scene:
The sellers sell sacrificial animals guaranteed to be clean to pilgrims who live too far away to bring their own and to locals who do not want to risk having their own animals declared unclean by priestly inspectors. The moneychangers give acceptable Tyrian currency for other currencies in order that worshipers may pay the temple tax and buy sacrificial animals (m. Seqal. 1:3, 47–8; 5:3–5 et passim). Doves are sold to worshipers who cannot afford animals (Lev 1:14; 5:7, 11; 12:6, 8).
Mark certainly implies, Jesus has something against the temple-court activities and their effect on the economically vulnerable, for there is a clear link between the poor and Jesus’ living parable of judgment (i.e., overturning the tables). The overturning-tables-event, along with the disturbing scene of the Mark 12 poor widow left devastated at the hands of the scribes, was part of an elaborate commerce-banking system that was taking advantage of the poor.
Second, the fig-tree scene is also an allusion, if not a direct referent to Jeremiah 8:13:
The fig-tree episode is closely linked to the table-turning scene in that Jesus’ OT references are in close proximity. The cursing of the fig-tree is “a dramatic invocation” of Jeremiah 7–8. Moreover, the prophetic words of judgment are acted out as a living parable when Jesus overturns the tables in the temple courts, which points to the temple’s end. The enactment is complete when the fig-tree, afterward, is withered from the roots up (Mark 11:20b), which prophetically ensures the temple’s eventual demise. To make the Jeremiah 7–8 correspondence to Mark’s Jerusalem-temple entrance-exit segment more vivid, it is interesting to note that Jeremiah even adds an indictment against scribes:
The chief priests and the scribes (Mark 11:18a) found themselves the targets of Jesus’ indictments and the object of his judgment parables (activities). They understood his action-parable, for they began seeking how to destroy Him (11:18b; note 3:6; 12:12). Yet, ironically, Jesus will soon make the same predication of the temple (13:2).
The widow is present in the promised destruction of the temple
Finally, the closing widow-bracket is Jesus’ exit from the temple (13:1–2) in which there is an OT referent that includes the widow. Following the warning about duplicitous scribes (12:38–40) and the observation regarding the poor widow (vv. 41–44), Jesus, then, declares that judgment would befall the temple (13:2). Here in the final scene, Mark ends the Jerusalem-temple entrance-exit segment (Mark 11–13) with a link to the Malachi 3 threat. First, the Lord had come suddenly (“unexpectedly”) to his temple, bringing judgment (portrayed in the judgment-action-parables). We read in Malachi:
“Behold, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me and the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold, He is coming,” says the Lord of hosts (Mal 3:1).
Second, the widow is in close proximity to this announcement of judgment, which provides a basis for the Malachi threat (3:1), that is, the reason the temple will be destroyed:
“Then I will draw near to you for judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers and against the adulterers and against those who swear falsely, and against those who oppress the wage earner in his wages, the widow and the orphan, and those who turn aside the alien and do not fear Me,” says the Lord of hosts (Mal 3:5).
The Malachi threat is related to the maltreatment of the widow (i.e., not fulfilling the covenant land-laws toward the economically vulnerable), clearly signifying Mark’s intention for drawing upon the poor widow in Mark 12 just prior to Jesus’ pronouncement of temple judgment (13:2).
The association between Mark 11–13 and the Malachi 3 threat is made more poignant to the reader/listener, for in the wider context of Malachi’s prophetic pronouncement there are charges against the leadership of Israel. They have disregarded God’s “statutes” (Mal 3:7; also 4:4). They are charged with “robbing” God through the misappropriation of temple tithes and offerings (Mal 3:8–9). Interestingly, the temple authorities who were to receive the tithes and offerings were to share it with the widow:
When you have finished paying all the tithe of your increase in the third year, the year of tithing, then you shall give it to the Levite, to the stranger, to the orphan and to the widow, that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied (Deut 26:12; also note 14:29; Lev 27:30).
The widow context represents a serious breach of covenant-keeping. The violation of explicit land-laws and her presence throughout the Jerusalem-temple entrance-exit segment (i.e. the judgment-parable scenes of overturned-tables and the cursing of the fig-tree, the climactic poor widow scene of chapter 12, and the Malachi threat at the temple) indicate the final nail in the coffin for Israel, the result of extensive and continuous disobedience. This is the significance of the Mark 12 poor widow vs. duplicitous scribes episode, which presents a negative interpretation (i.e., a warning to beware) and should cause concern for us on this side of the story as we consider how this text offers a paradigm for Christian discipleship.
There is some irony to the two typical reactions (that is, the two interpretations) to the story, which I call the poor widow vs. duplicitous scribes episode: one holds it up as an example of faithful devotion and sacrificial giving, while the other sees judgment, lament, and tragedy. Everything about this short story, in Mark 12, suggests that the widow is being taken advantage of by a temple leadership that does not have her best interests in mind. Although it might be advantageous for churches and Christian ministries to see the poor widow as an example of sacrificial giving, this interpretation, however, turns the text 180 degrees contrary to its context and is disconnected from the plot Mark has developed through his Gospel narrative. This leads to a failure of interpretation that distracts the Christian community from developing biblically authoritative and analogous application from this text.
This episode fits within Mark’s paradigm for Christian discipleship; but, what does it require of the Christian community? How does it inform the Christian call to discipleship? Is the widow the focal point, or is the failure of temple leadership the crux of the story that should form the church’s understanding of discipleship? Mark does draw a narrative correspondence between the widow giving her whole life [my translation for holon ton bion autēs, 12: 44c] and Jesus’ imminent sacrifice, the giving of his own life. Some take this to mean that “we, too, should give our lives and resources sacrificially like the widow and Jesus.”
This is an inappropriate analogy and is an ill-fitted correspondence to the text and its context. While the link to Jesus is certainly there in the Gospel story, the larger issue is the burden that was improperly, even maliciously, laid on the poor widow by the temple establishment—the poor widow should not have had to give her whole life (v. 44c). This is the point here: as God’s representatives, the scribes and, as well, the whole of temple leadership should have been her advocates, not the cause of her destitution. The link to Jesus is simply that he will step up to be her advocate and will give his life on her behalf.
Jesus’ observation of a poor widow who had given the last of her financial resources for which her whole life depended can just as equally be read as “downright disapproval” [Addison Wright] and not as praise. The contrast between the scribes and the widow is not about piety, but for illustrating and emphasizing the duplicitous conduct of the scribes. It is lamentable to watch this act of the poor widow in the presence of such wealth and religious duplicity. We can fail to notice there is a tragedy happening that day, right there in the temple courts.
Mark's Gospel narrative is not merely informational in nature; it is meant to move an audience to respond. Mark expected his readers/listeners, that is, the community of believers, to respond to his Gospel—to hear and be affected by the stories and teachings and events that shape his narrative. This is equally true regarding the Mark 12 scene under discussion, the poor widow vs. the duplicitous scribes. The “greater condemnation” (12:40) of the temple establishment and the end of the temple (i.e., its destruction, 13:2) should not be dismissed as mere historical information or relevant only to the Israel of old. Mark crafts his narrative in such a way that pulls his readers/listeners into the story so they would hear that their end can have a similar outcome if they are likewise unprepared, for they, too, do not know when the master of the house is coming (Mark 13:35).
The warning to beware of duplicitous scribes is soon followed by Jesus’ disciples pointing out the “wonderful stones” and “wonderful buildings” of the temple (13:1). It is to this which Jesus replies, “Not one stone will be left upon another” (13:2). This is ironic and disappointing. The disciples didn’t get it; they had missed the point. They have not been listening—a dangerous place to be, for this is the OT charge against Israel’s unprepared leadership. Yet all readers/listeners are to guard against their own unpreparedness at the (re)appearance of the Master of the house.
 Mark uses krima here, which means judgment and is most likely drawn from the Malachi reference (Mal 3:5).
 The drawing in of the readers/listeners can also be seen in the “hardening” texts directed at the disciples (Mark 6:51–52; 8:14–21).
*From “Widows in Our Courts (Mark 12:38–44): The Public Advocacy Role of Local Congregations as Discipleship,” chapter one of Wasted Evangelism.
Often much is made of the coinage, the two mites, in the Poor widow story in Mark 12 (see v. 42). Many assume, too quickly, that the widow’s offering is placed “voluntary” in one of the thirteen trumpet-shaped vessels used to receive the various offerings by those entering the temple courts. Some offerings were obligatory, related to the temple tax and sin offerings; some were free-will and contributions of charity. Nothing in the text necessitates that the widow’s offering was voluntary. In fact, the scene and the wider context suggest that the two coins (leptons), which equaled a quadran, were more likely related to the temple tax or sin offering than to the voluntary free-will offering. The widow’s offering was worth less than one hundredth of a denarius or one hundredth of a day’s wage. This amount was capable of purchasing a “handful of flour.” According to OT Levitical provisions, if someone’s means are insufficient for even the two turtledoves or two young pigeons, then a tenth of an ephah of fine flour may be substituted for the sin offering (Lev 5:11; 14:21–32). Interestingly, there is also evidence that some temple authorities had viewed the offering of flour with contempt:
Once a woman brought a handful of fine flour, and the priest despised her, saying, “See what she offers! What is there in this to eat? What is there in this to offer up?” It was shown to him in a dream: “Do not despise her! It is regarded as if she had sacrificed her own life” (Lev. Rab. 3.5).
The presence of the two coins in the scene emphasizes the widow’s condition of poverty and suggests her disadvantage (her standing or status) before the leaders in the temple courts, who were to be her advocates, but only had contempt for her.
In addition to experiencing the loss of her spouse, making the widow one of the more vulnerable in Israel, she had been placed into this humiliating predicament by the established authorities and their banking system. The people and system had rendered her estate/house “devoured” by requiring the widow to contribute to that very system her remaining means (i.e., the last of her funds) to live. Jesus condemns the duplicitous temple leadership, their malicious behaviors (12:40c), and the temple system (13:2) that worsened the poor widow’s condition (12:44c) and left her resources now completely “devoured,” which was represented in the poor widow giving her last two coins.
Note: Another possible reading for the contrast Jesus made between the surplus of the wealthy and the widow’s last two coins might suggest that those with the surplus have an oblivious detachment (malicious or banal) from the plight of the poor widow whose life was about to be devoured—they have surplus and her whole life will be devoured—and that those who are called to observe the contrast (i.e., disciples and readers/listeners) are not to do the same.
Adapted from chapter 1 of Wasted Evangelism, "Widows in Our Courts."
Church leaders should, at least, question who benefits and who does not benefit from current church structures and bureaucracies (i.e., church life and function). The building-centered and business-centric models that most contemporary church-systems emulate can result in duplicitous habits, which can be suggestive of a protective posture for its leaders and for the cultural status quo. Our ways of doing church are not neutral.
The temple system into which the gospel is introduced in the New Testament, as well as its leadership, were antithetical to the arrival of the kingdom that had been inaugurated by Jesus’ arrival. Perhaps it is not the construction of temples or the development of religious bureaucracies per se, but the energy and resources used to maintain these systems that promote the status of their own authorities and stakeholders, which can distract (to put it blandly) from a church’s responsibility toward the poor. Rather than laboring to maintain current church systems and structures, contemporary church leaders need to promote the church’s responsibilities to the poor. Otherwise, they may replicate the social and cultural location described throughout the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles.
The cost of doing church business and maintaining church bureaucracies are not neutral to the church’s role as advocates for the poor. This includes the allocation of human, financial, and social capital available in and through a church or a consortium of churches for use in the public square. Such allocations of financial and human capital could be used for advocating and caring for the economically vulnerable and the poor. The resources and capacity of the local church need to be evaluated, not by our contemporary cultural expressions of church life, but in terms of the kingdom of God, which certainly includes addressing the causes of poverty and advocating for the poor.
Andrew Davey, in his book Urban Christianity and Global Order, insists that a church concerned about “its own sustainability must have strategies other than the growth paradigm” (p. 112). Contemporary church growth models are multimillion-dollar business ventures with huge marketing campaigns and an elite celebrity leadership of its own that promote costly expectations for a local church. There should be consideration whether such growth expectations divert resources and human capital away from a church’s responsibilities regarding the poor. While a church’s sustainability should be directed outward and toward the future, it should also have positive, redemptive consequences for the community, with special consideration for its vulnerable populations.
Adapted from chapter 1 of Wasted Evangelism, "Widows in Our Courts (Mark 12:38–44): The Public Advocacy Role of Local Congregations as Discipleship."
Chip M. Anderson, advocate for biblical social action; pastor of an urban church plant in the Hill neighborhood of New Haven, CT; husband, father, author, former Greek & NT professor; and, 19 years involved with social action.