By Adam Chaney
During his earthly ministry, Jesus quarreled with the religious and political leaders of his community on a regular basis. Often, Jesus uses these social powers as illustrations of what the Kingdom of God is NOT. Ultimately, this led to Jesus’ martyrdom at the hands of those powers because he rebuffed those in positions of leadership and influence.
Mark 12:38-44 is an example. Jesus says, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” Then, Jesus takes a seat, along with the disciples, opposite the temple treasury. They watched the crowd and many wealthy people place large sums of money into the treasury.
Subsequently, a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
This is a well-known and well-used story about a widow who gives all she has to the temple treasury. We often employ this widow as an example of faithfulness and a charge to tithe. We like to think that Jesus is saying: “Be like this poor widow who trusts God so much that she gave her last two coins, everything she has, all she had to live on! Because when you give with faith like that, your gift counts for more than if you had given out of abundance.”
Okay, but that is not what Jesus said at all!
We should give to God faithfully in all seasons of life, but nowhere does Jesus say the poor widow is the example of faithful giving. Jesus says, the widow has put in more than the rich people because her two coins cost her literally everything. She has given 100%, thus, she has indeed given more than someone who has not emptied their bank account.
The problem is that she is now destitute. This woman who had little to give now has absolutely nothing. One might say, her house has been devoured. The poor widow is the illustration and evidence of all that Jesus said in the preceding verses. Jesus is not teaching his disciples about faithful tithing, rather he is teaching them about corrupt systems and structures that take everything from the marginalized and vulnerable.
The religious and political leaders of the community should be helping the widow, not requiring her to enter abject poverty for the sake of appearances, so that the elite can insulate their power, demand respect, and secure their places of honor. These leaders of the social system exploit the vulnerable to enjoy comfort, security, wealth, and attention. They are focused on themselves instead of caring for those in need. They are focused on the wrong things.
And Jesus’ point, is that the whole system, the whole structure is corrupt and oppressive. The temple, which ought to be the place of security, equality, compassion, and refuge has become a den of thieves; an opulent structure built on the broken backs of the marginalized. At this point in the narrative, Jesus stands up and heads for the exit. The presence of God departs the structure that claims to be the locus of his culture and Kingdom.
And yet, not a moment later, the disciples are distracted by the opulence and enormity of the place. Now, they are focused on the wrong things. They fail to recognize that the grandeur has be achieved by exploitation. In response, Jesus declares that the entire system and structure will experience its own complete devastation. The structure that appears so great, so strong, so righteous, will be entirely demolished.
Jesus then warns his disciples to be on guard against many important leaders who will co-opt the name of Jesus, attempting to convince the church to follow their agendas, leading many astray.
Today, much of the church finds herself in a similar situation. We would do well to hear the warning of Christ and examine our own participation in systems and structures that exploit those whom we are called to serve.
Adam J. Chaney is the pastor of First Baptist Church Riesel, TX. He is a CBF Leadership Scholar pursing an M.Div. in Theology from George W. Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University. He received his B.A. in Christian Theology from Houston Baptist University.