The Poor Widow Who Gave at the Temple: Narrative Logic in Mark 12:41-44 | CBE International

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The Poor Widow Who Gave at the Temple: Narrative Logic in Mark 12:41-44

In Mark 12:41–44, a woman shows the readers the way to follow Christ as she foreshadows the suffering that lies ahead for Messiah and for the disciples by giving her “whole life” to God. Thus, she should not be overlooked in the Bible’s long list of exemplary women. Through Mark’s artful storytelling, this unnamed woman—whom Jesus witnesses giving an offering in the temple—encapsulates the self-giving life of Christ and foreshadows the lives of all Christians who follow Jesus well.

Reading in Context

We have all heard how a simple word can have several meanings depending on its context: “Trunk,” for example, can mean the back of a car, the “nose” of an elephant, the stem of a tree, a storage unit, the core of a person. What is true for individual words is also true for phrases, sentences, and even larger units of text. For example, Jesus’ proclamation to Nathaniel in John 1:51, that “you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (NRSV), only has clarity when it is read with awareness of the context of Jacob’s encounter with God at “Bethel” in Gen 28:10–19. As an integrated part of the canon of Scripture, Genesis allows the reader to understand that Jesus is proclaiming himself to be the new “Bethel,” which means “house of God.” Likewise, the account of the poor widow who gave at the temple (hereafter “the Widow”) in Mark 12:41–44 is clarified by giving close attention to its immediate and broader contexts.

Mark’s Geographic Structure

Starting at a broad level, we should recognize Mark’s attention to geography and location. The account of the Widow falls in and around Jerusalem. Literarily, locations help Mark structure his Gospel as in the following diagram:1

A The Wilderness (1:1–15)
   B Galilee (1:16–8:21)
      C The Way (8:22–11:11)
   B´ Jerusalem (11:12–15:41)
A´ The Tomb (15:42–16:8)

The wilderness and the tomb, locations of Mark’s opening and closing, have many similarities, including being uninhabited places, places of the dead, places Jesus enters and exits, and places where a herald’s voice pronounces good news. One significant similarity of the tomb with the wilderness is that this place of death and new life becomes another starting point for the Gospel.

Moving inward to the second and fourth rows of the above diagram, Galilee and Jerusalem are contrasting lands. In Galilee, Jesus calls and sends disciples, performs many miracles, and is received by many. In Jerusalem, there are fewer miracles, no calling or sending of disciples, and it is a place where the religious leaders reject and kill him. The central section, 8:22–11:11, not only marks the geographic “way” to Jerusalem from Galilee, but also unfolds suffering as the “way” to follow Jesus to glory.

The following discussion will narrow to a focus on the macro and micro contexts of the Jerusalem passages leading to and following from the unit involving the Widow in order to show Mark’s positive portrayal of the Widow in the architecture of his narrative.

The Contexts of the Passage

The Beginning of the Jerusalem Section

The structure of the central section, 8:22–11:11, is as follows:

The blind see; Who is Jesus (8:22–30)

  1. Prediction, misunderstanding by Peter, instruction through Elijah (8:31–9:29)
  2. Prediction, misunderstanding by the Twelve, instruction through Moses (9:30–10:31)
  3. Prediction, misunderstanding by James and John, instruction through Jesus (10:32–45)

The blind see; Who is Jesus (10:46–11:10/11)2

Just as the first healing of a blind man (8:22–26) is followed by a revelation that Jesus is Messiah through Peter’s confession (8:27–30),3 so too is the last healing of blind Bartimaeus (10:46–52) followed by a public revelation that Jesus is Messiah through his procession into Jerusalem (11:1–10).4 However, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is not triumphal, but anticlimactic by both Jewish5 and Roman6 standards. Jesus enters the temple as the messianic descendant of David (“Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!,” 11:10a NRSV), but instead of setting up his rule, he looks and leaves (11:11), foreshadowing difficulties with the temple that follow in the next portion of the Gospel.7

Development of the Jerusalem Section (11:12–13:37)

Mary Ann Tolbert offers a linear, logical, rhetorically-focused layout of the units in chs. 11–16. Tolbert’s structure recognizes 11:12–25 as introducing the larger discussions in and around the temple, geographically and conceptually.8 A key interpretive contribution of Tolbert is that ch. 12’s parable of the Vineyard and the Tenants is a “plot synopsis to aid the audience’s understanding”9 of upcoming events. She positions the unit involving the Widow as a positive, individual response at the end of the teachings section.10

The Immediate Context of the Passage

The more immediate context to the passage involving the Widow features three controversies designed to trap Jesus, followed by three teachings by Jesus himself.11 Jesus turns the first two controversies on his opponents (12:13–17, 18–27).12 The tone of the third controversy, initiated by one of the scribes, is much more positive (12:28–34) and sets the scene for the scribe to ask Jesus a sincere question about which commandment is the most important.13 After Jesus identifies the first commandment as loving God and the second as loving your neighbor (12:29–31), the scribe once again approves of Jesus’ answer with the word “well” (12:32, cf. v. 28). The scribe also agrees that loving God and one’s neighbor are greater than religious, ritual activities such as whole-burnt offerings and sacrifices (12:33). As a result, Jesus proclaims that the scribe is not far from the kingdom of God (12:34).

The key word “whole” connects the passage involving the scribe with the passage involving the Widow.14 Jesus presses upon the scribe the necessity of loving God with one’s whole heart, whole soul/life/self, whole mind, and whole strength (12:30). The scribe agrees with Jesus on the importance of loving God, but conspicuously retreats from Jesus’ inclusion of “whole soul/life/self” (12:33). Then, in the subsequent account of the Widow, Jesus proclaims that the Widow gave her whole life (12:44). In other words, the Widow exemplifies the whole-hearted response that people are to give to God by giving her whole life in the temple.

The friendly scribe and the Widow are an unlikely pair. Nevertheless, with the scribe, Jesus proposes a new standard that goes beyond temple norms, and the scribe embraces the standard and explicates the new norm—“You are right, teacher . . . ‘he is one . . .’ and ‘to love him with all the heart, and all the understanding, and all the strength’ . . . is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices” (12:32–33 NRSV). Likewise, the Widow’s “complete offering acts out the Shema [Deut 6:4] which is the basis of Jesus’ singular creed. . . . The positive attentiveness of the scribe and the positive action of the Widow surround the negative, rapacious actions of the scribal class.”15

Therefore, the units involving the scribe and the Widow are not only connected in their placement within the narrative structure of Mark 12:13–44 as third, positive narratives that contrast corrective controversies/teachings, but are also connected by sympathetically resonating the common theme of whole-hearted love for God.

The unit immediately preceding the passage involving the Widow contains Jesus’ denunciation of the scribes (12:38–40). Scholars have argued persuasively that, when Jesus addresses the scribes, he is specifically commenting on their role as lawyers appointed to be guardians or administrators of the estate of a widow.16 A guardian was either appointed by the owner of an estate, by a parent prior to death, or by the courts.17 The administrator received a percentage of the value of the estate. The administrator would sometimes exploit the estate. This was commonly described as “eating or drinking” or “clothing or covering himself.”18 Indeed, in Mark 12:40, the scribes are figuratively described as “eating up” widows’ houses.19

No one would appoint an administrator who did not have a reputation for piety. Therefore, the administrator would show himself worthy of appointment by publicly promoting himself—for example, “walking in robes,” receiving “greetings in the marketplace,” having “seats of honor in the synagogues,” having “places of honor at feasts,” and “making long prayers” (12:38–41).20 Once the administrator was appointed and in charge of the deceased’s estate, he would “consume” or “eat away” the estate through exorbitant fees and costs (12:40a). To these corrupt lawyers, Jesus says that there will be greater judgment than having themselves removed as an administrator (12:40b).

The Widow in 12:41–44 may, or may not, have been taken advantage of by the scribes. Geoffrey Smith concludes that, “even if she were not an actual, literal victim, she is representative of victims of scribal exploitation by virtue of her severe poverty as well as of Mark’s placement of this account in this context.”21 What is clear is that, as Jesus and his disciples are passing through the temple, Jesus instructs them not to be like the scribes who devour widows’ houses, but to be like the Widow who gives all that she has.

The Passage Involving the Widow

The scene with the Widow opens with Jesus still in the temple, sitting opposite the treasury. The location appears to be the Court of the Women since that was as far into the temple as a woman was permitted to enter.22 While the term for treasury (gazophulakion) may be used for rooms or places for storing valuables,23 it was also used for contribution boxes or receptacles.24

Jesus observes a large number of people placing or casting (eballon25) metal money into the treasury chests (12:41). He then focuses on two distinct groups—comparing the rich and the poor; the many and the one; the much and the little; the act from those with abundance, surplus, or overflow and the act of one from her lack, want, or poverty.

The many rich are throwing much money into the treasury chests, possibly making a loud noise as the metal coins touch the horned-shaped receptacles. Then the narrator describes an individual, poor Widow who comes and casts two of the smallest coins (two lepta, the smallest Palestinian coins, which together amount to a kodrantēs, the smallest Roman coin26) into the treasury chest (12:42).

Jesus’ words are introduced with somber phrases. First the narrator states that Jesus called his disciples (12:43). The term for calling (proskaleō) has the sense of summoning or inviting in a legal or official sense.27 In Mark, this same term describes Jesus summoning the Twelve (3:13), summoning the religious leaders to instruct them through a parable (3:23), summoning the Twelve to send them out on mission (6:7), summoning the multitude to teach a parable (7:14), and Pilate summoning the centurion to determine if Jesus was dead (15:44). Therefore, in Mark’s narrative, the term describes an official gathering for instruction or information. Second, Jesus prefaces his words with a solemn statement that, in Mark, is only used by Jesus before a significant, surprising, and sometimes difficult teaching: “Truly I say to you” (amēn legō humin, 12:43).28 This manner of introducing Jesus’ comment alerts the reader that the disciples have been summoned for an important, significant, and perhaps surprising or difficult teaching by Jesus (12:43).

The content of Jesus’ statement uses much of the same language that the narrator used in introducing the passage, but Jesus turns the language around: “this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury” (12:43b NRSV). The Widow was introduced as an individual (“one widow, a widow,” mia chēra), and now Jesus emphasizes her individuality: “The Widow, this one, the poor one.

Furthermore, the contrasting group was described as “many rich ones were casting much” (12:41), but here it is not the many, but this poor Widow who “cast more than all who were casting into the treasury” (12:43). The several of them cast much, but she cast more. Jesus then provides the reason for this paradoxical reversal with another contrast: “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 [‘her whole life’]” (12:44 NRSV, italics added). The subjects on each side of this compound sentence are emphasized by contrasting conjunction/pronoun units at the beginning of each sentence: “for all,” “but she.” Then each pronoun is modified by a prepositional phrase beginning with “out of” (ek): “For all, out of their surplus”;29 “but she, out of her lack.”30 They both “cast” their offering. However, the symmetry is broken when Jesus makes a double reference to what the Widow gave—“all as much as she had, her whole life.”31 The piling up of descriptors of the content of the Widow’s gift weights the comparison in her favor:

The significant, surprising, and difficult teaching that Jesus summoned his disciples to hear is that it was not the rich who gave out of their excess who pleased God, but this poor Widow who gave out of her need. In accordance with Deut 27 and 28, the disciples may have assumed that riches were an indication of God’s pleasure, but Jesus instructs them on the more significant gift of the poor Widow who gave out of her need, in contrast to the rich who gave out of their surplus. When Jesus earlier discussed the role of riches “on the way” with his disciples, they were “amazed at his words” (10:23–24). Now he shows them the lesson in the temple by comparing the gifts of the rich with the gift of the poor Widow. Contextually, the Widow may be a foil to the lawyers who gain their wealth by eating up widows’ estates. However, she also foreshadows those who are to be willing to risk their life out of devotion to God as Jesus will instruct the disciples in the next chapter (13:9–20).

Once again, Mark has portrayed a woman as an example of faithfulness. She shows what Jesus requires of disciples in the central section of Mark:

For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. (8:35 NRSV)

You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me. (10:21 NRSV)

But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first. (10:31 NRSV)

She may also foreshadow Jesus’ upcoming crucifixion. The Widow gave her whole life (12:44); likewise, Jesus will give his life as a sacrifice for humankind: “For the Son of Man came . . . to give his life a ransom for many” (10:45 NRSV).

Conclusion

The broad structure of the narrative, the parallelism of the individual scribe and the individual Widow, the use of the key word “whole,” and the weighing of descriptors between the “many” and the “one” show that the Widow’s narrative is to be understood as positive—indeed, as exemplary. Once again, Mark has a woman show his readers the way to follow Christ as she willingly foreshadows the suffering ahead for Messiah and the disciples by giving her “whole life” to God.

Notes

This article is a highly abbreviated version of ch. 3 of the author’s dissertation, “Biblical Gender Studies and Literary Analysis: Contributing Different Perspective on Women in the Gospel of Mark” (University of South Africa, forthcoming).

1. Many acknowledge the chiastic structure of Mark around broad, geographical references. For a fuller diagram, see Bastiaan Martinus Franciscus van Iersel, Mark: A Reader-Response Commentary, JSNT 164 (Sheffield Academic, 1998) 84:

Title (1:1)
  prologue, the wilderness (1:2–13)
    prospective hinge (1:14–15)
      Galilee (1:16—8:21)
      frame, blind seeing (8:22–26)
          the way (8:27—10:45)
      frame, blind seeing (10:46–52)
    Jerusalem (11:1–15:39)
  retrospective hinge (15:40–41)
epilogue, the tomb (15:42–16:8)

See also Abraham Kuruvilla, Mark: A Theological Commentary for Preachers (Cascade, 2012) 5; Augustine Stock, The Method and the Message of Mark (Michael Glazier, 1989) 25–30; Stock, “The Structure of Mark: A Five-Fold Concentric Framework,” TBT (1985) 291–96; R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark (Eerdmans, 2002) 11–15; James W. Voelz, Mark, Concordia Commentary (Concordia, 2013) 49.

Even many who do not identify an overall chiastic structure of Mark see a basic two-fold structure around Galilee and Jerusalem, placing the unit with the Widow in the Jerusalem section: C. S. Mann, Mark: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, AB 27 (Doubleday, 1986) 177–79; Mary Ann Tolbert, Sowing the Gospel: Mark’s World in Literary-Historical Perspective (Fortress, 1989) 113–21; C. E. B. Cranfield, ed., The Gospel According to St Mark: An Introduction and Commentary (Cambridge University Press, 1974); William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark: The English Text With Introduction, Exposition, and Notes (Eerdmans, 1974) 29–32; Joel F. Williams, “Does Mark’s Gospel Have an Outline?,” JETS 49/3 (2006) 510, 512, 524–25; Bastiaan Martinus Franciscus van Iersel, “Concentric Structures in Mark 1:14–3:35 (4:1): With Some Observations on Method,” BibInt 3/1 (1995) 75.

2. See Mann, Mark, 183–84.

3. Herbert W. Bateman IV, “Defining the Titles ‘Christ’ and ‘Son of God’ in Mark’s Narrative Presentation of Jesus,” JETS 50/3 (2007) 541–42.

4. Bateman, “Defining the Titles,” 541–45.

5. See Zech 9:9; Gen 49:10–12; see also 1 Sam 8:10–11, 17; 2 Kgs 9:13; Ps 118:26.

6. David R Catchpole, “The ‘Triumphal’ Entry,” in Jesus and the Politics of His Day (Cambridge University Press, 1984) 319–21, sets out parallel examples of entrances into Jerusalem including that of Alexander, Apollonius, Simon Maccabeus, Marcus Agrippa, Archelaus; Paul Brooks Duff, “The March of the Divine Warrior and the Advent of the Greco-Roman King: Mark’s Account of Jesus’ Entry into Jerusalem,” JBL 111/1 (1992) 59–64; Kuruvilla, Mark, 244–45.

7. Kuruvilla writes: “Jesus comes into the temple, and then leaves both temple and city. His Jerusalem entry II (11:15) and Jerusalem entry III (11:27; see above) are equally jejune; no one in his ‘capital’ or his ‘palace’ appears to pay him any attention. The altercation in 11:27–33 appears to originate after Jesus has already entered the temple. In other words, Jesus’ entries are the essence of Irony! His rejection has begun: rather than being appropriately received, he is completely ignored.” Kuruvilla, Mark, 244–45.

8. “As many commentators have pointed out, the insertion of the temple-cleaning episode between the two parts of the fig tree story serves to associate the barrenness of the fig tree with the corruption of the temple, introducing a series of explicit and implicit attacks on the temple that form an anti-temple polemic throughout the final chapters of the Gospels.” Tolbert, Sowing the Gospel, 193.

9. Tolbert, Sowing the Gospel, 233, understands the parable of the Tenants to function similarly to the parable of the Sower—as a plot synopsis for the major sections of the gospels: “Each of these parables, then, appears to reflect the basic actions of Jesus and the other characters in its respective division” (122).

10. As Tolbert explains: “Indeed, the Gospel often seems to describe good actions or good responses as individual actions, whereas groups are portrayed neutrally or negatively. Those healed are single individuals emerging from the crowds; the true offering of the one poor widow is contrasted to the abundance of the many rich people (12:41–42); the one wise scribe stands apart from the typical beliefs and actions of scribes in general.” Tolbert, Sowing the Gospel, 256; see also Williams, “Does Mark’s Gospel Have an Outline?,” 520, 524–25.

11. Williams describes this two-fold structure as “Jesus’ Authority to Meet Challenges” and “Jesus’ Authority to Challenge,” Williams, “Does Mark’s Gospel Have an Outline?,” 524–25.

12. Tolbert, Sowing the Gospel, 250–54.

13. Williams, Other Followers of Jesus, 174; France, The Gospel of Mark, 476. This question was not uncommon: As Kuruvilla notes, “The attempt to locate the foremost commandment of the 613 in the Torah was not unique to the dialogue: Rabbi Hillel’s ‘silver’ rule, the negative of Jesus’ ‘golden’ rule (Matt 7:12), stated: ‘What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah, while the rest is commentary thereof’.” (b. Sabb 31a; also Tob 4:15); b. Mak. 24a reduced the law to the eleven principles of Ps 15, the six of Isa 33:15–16, the three of Mic 6:8, the two of Isa 56:1; and the one in Amos 5:4 (and Hab 2:4); b. ber. 63a asserted that the basis for all the essential principles of the Torah was found in Prov 3:6, etc.” Kuruvilla, Mark, 274n12; see also Robert H. Stein, Mark (Baker Academic, 2008) 560; France, The Gospel of Mark, 477n62.

14. See Williams, Other Followers of Jesus, 176–77.

15. Kozar, “The Owl and the Pussycat,” 49.

16. E.g., J. Duncan M. Derrett, “'Eating up the Houses of Widows': Jesus’s Comment on Lawyers?,” NovT 14/1 (1972) 1–9. The word for “guardian” or “administrator” is Greek epitropos, transliterated into Mishnaic post-NT Hebrew as ’apatropos.

17. M. Gittin 5.4 states: “Orphans who boarded with a householder, or for whom their father appointed a guardian—he [who provides for their keep] is liable to separate tithe from the produce. A guardian whom a father of orphans has appointed is to be subjected to an oath. [If] a court appointed him, he is not subjected to an oath. Abba Saul says, ‘Matters are reversed.’” Jacob Neusner, The Mishnah: A New Translation, reprint ed. (Yale University Press, 1991) 474–75 (emphasis added).

18. See, for example, B. Tal. Gittin 52b, in Derrett, “Eating up the Houses of Widows,” 6.

19. BDAG 532, s.v. κατεσθίω/κατέσθω. In a literal sense the word is used to describe devouring something completely as in the birds eating up the seed that is sown in Matt. 13:4; here it is a figurative extension of “eating” or “consuming” so as to take over by dishonest means the property of someone else. L&N 585, s.v. κατεσθίω.

20. Derrett, “Eating up the Houses of Widows,” 4–5.

21. Geoffrey Smith, “A Closer Look at the Widow’s Offering: Mark 12:41–44,” JETS 40/1 (1997) 30n12.

22. Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, V:190–200.

23. Esth 3:8 (king’s treasuries); Neh 12:44; 13:5; 2 Macc 3:6 (temple treasuries); Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, VI:282.

24. See, e.g., m. Sheqalim 6:6 for a discussion of temple “shofar chests” and the various offerings they contained. Neusner, The Mishnah, 261; BDAG, 186. See also m. Sheqalim 2:1 “Just as there were shofar chests [for receiving the sheqel tax] in the Temple, so there were shofar chests in the provinces.” Neusner, The Mishnah, 253. See also Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Baker, 1977) 108, s.v. γαζοφυλάκιον; L&N 71.

25. The imperfect, eballon, is used in 12:41 to show the scene in progress: “the rich were casting much.” Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament with Scripture, Subject, and Greek Word Indexes (Zondervan, 1997) 502–3; Stanley E. Porter, Idioms of the Greek New Testament, 2nd ed. (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 1992) 21, 29 (“The present and imperfect tense-forms occur in contexts where the user of Greek wishes to depict the action as in progress”).

26. The leptos was the Greek term for “the smallest coin” in the Palestinian (pruta-shamin) system. The kodrantēs was the smallest unit of currency (coin) in the Roman monetary system. See Daniel Sperber, “Mark 12:42 and Its Metrological Background: A Study in Ancient Syriac Versions,” NovT 9/3 (1967) 178–90; BDAG, s.v. λεπτός (1/128 of a denarius), s.v. κοδράντης (1/64 of a denarius). A dēnarion was a Roman silver coin, a “worker’s average daily wage.” BDAG 223, s.v. δηνάριον; L&N 63, §6. 79, s.v. λεπτόν.

27. BDAG 881, s.v. προσκαλέω; see also Acts 5:40; Matt 18:32.

28. BDAG 53, s.v. ἀμήν; see also: Mark 3:28; 8:12; 9:21, 41; 10:15, 29–30; 11:23; 13:30; 14:18, 25.

29. The verb perisseuō here is a present, active, substantive participle. It could be translated as “surplus” or “abundance” but also has the sense of “overflow” as in 2 Cor 9:12. It is to “exceed a fixed number or measure; to be over and above a certain number or measure.” Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon, 505, s.v. περισσεύω. The noun describes what is left over in Mark 8:8, “They ate and they were satisfied, and they took up the leftover (perisseumata) fragments, seven baskets.” Likewise, the parallel word describing the source of the widow’s gift, husterēsis, could have the sense of poverty, but also describes the source of poverty, i.e., her lack or need of what is essential. See Phil 4:11, “Not that I speak from want (kath’ husterēsin); L&N 562, §57.37 (“lacking in what is essential or needed”). Accordingly, the many gave out of their excess, but the poor widow gave out of her want.

30. The preposition “ἐκ is more restricted, perhaps best translated in its basic sense as ‘out of’, as opposed to ἀπό meaning ‘from’ or ‘away from’ in a more general sense.” Porter, Idioms of the Greek New Testament, 154; see also Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, 371.

31. The phrase, “her whole life” (holon ton bion autēs) may have the sense of all her wealth, riches, or living. See the textual variant in Luke 8:43, “And spending with physicians her whole life (holon ton bion); Song 8:7, “If a man were to give all his life (holon ton bion) for love, it would be utterly despised.”

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