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.
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.