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.
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.