And He sat down opposite the treasury, and began observing how the people were putting money into the treasury; and many rich people were putting in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which amount to a cent. Calling His disciples to Him, He said to them, “Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the contributors to the treasury; for they all put in out of their surplus, but she, out of her poverty, put in all she owned, all she had to live on” (Mark 12:41–44).
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.
#1––Jesus’ Entrance into the Temple Scene: Cursing the fig-tree/ overturning tables of commerce/the withered fig-tree (11:12–21); OT formation is from Jer 7–8; with connections to Lev 5:11; 12:8; 14:22, 30
“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).
#2––Jesus warns of scribes (12:38–44): Beware duplicitous scribes who devour widow’s houses/the poor widow put in all she owned (12:38–44); OT formation is from Exodus 22:22–24; with obvious connections to Deut 14:28–29; 24:19–21 and Lev 19:9–10; 23:22
“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).
#3––Jesus’ Exit and the temple destroyed (13:1–2): OT formation of this scene is from Mal 3:1–5
“‘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).
Through this bracketing we find an underlying theme: the impoverished widow. The Mark 12 poor widow episode is intentionally crafted into a storyline that begins with the cursing of a fig-tree (11:12–14, 19–20); then, leads immediately into the overturning tables of commerce in the Court of the Gentiles (11:15–17); and, then, ends with the promised destruction of the temple (13:1–2). The actions of Jesus in this segment are “consistent with the classic tradition of Israel’s prophets, who criticized the political and religious policies of the nation’s leaders” (Evans, Mark 8:27—16:20, 182). Jesus’ words and activities in Mark 11–13 are calculated to imply OT prophecy was being fulfilled right before their eyes. The Lord had come suddenly into his temple (Mark 11:1–11). The people had welcomed him gladly. The leaders, however, were not prepared; they were even absent at his appearance. After a series of conflict scenes in Mark 11–12, Mark ends the Jerusalem-temple entrance-exit segment with Jesus announcing that not one stone of the temple will be left upon another (13:2c); then, he leaves the temple, never to return.
Jesus’ words and activities in Mark 11–13 are calculated to imply OT prophecy was being fulfilled right before their eyes.
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).
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).
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).
“A tree in full leaf at Passover season is making a promise it cannot fulfill; so, too, is Israel.”
The cursing of the fig-tree brackets the scene of Jesus overturning the tables. But why does Jesus curse a fruitless fig-tree that was not in season anyway? There are two aspects of this scene that are helpful for our discussion of the duplicitous scribes and the Mark 12 poor widow. First, the scene fits the OT expectations that the Lord would arrive suddenly (“unexpectedly”) at his temple (Mal 3:1). R. T. France and Rikki Watts recognize this potential in the cursing of the fig-tree, namely that it mimics the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem in which his “initial visit to the temple has found all leaves, but no fruit” (France, Gospel of Mark, 441; also Watts, Isaiah’s New Exodus, 315). France puts it: “A tree in full leaf at Passover season is making a promise it cannot fulfill; so, too, is Israel” (Gospel of Mark, 441). The fig-tree--the fig-tree withered from the roots up, 11:20—indicates that the table-turning was judgment and a harbinger to the eventual destruction of the temple as Jesus affirms and foretells (13:2).
“I will surely snatch them away,”
How can you say, “We are wise,
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).
“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 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 subtle incorporation of the widow into the Mark 11–13 narrative confronts the reader/listener with the OT promise-threats of judgment on those who do not care and advocate for the poor: the widow’s presence is set within scenes of Jesus overturning the tables; she is behind the cursing of the fig-tree; and, she is prophetically tied to Jesus’ comments regarding the eventual destruction of the temple. This string of widow-allusions is made concrete and personal when she is identified amid the duplicitous scribes in the temple courts (Mark 12:42).
“Robbing God” was related to the misuse of the widow’s share of the tithe—a state of affairs similarly portrayed in the Mark 12 poor widow episode.