Once again we have just heard of Jesus insulting at a group of fellow Jews known as the ‘scribes’. They were experts in the Law of Moses, the religious, moral and social code by which Jesus and fellow Jews lived. People, most of them illiterate, looked to the scribes for interpretations and applications of the Law in particular situations, a Law which they believed was written for them by God.
What angered Jesus about the scribes was their arrogance and their expectation to revered and treated differently than others. So, for instance, when two people met in public, the ‘lay’ person (who had less knowledge of the Law) was expected to submit and greet the scribe first. Since no one knew the Law as well as they did, Jesus accused them of basking in this recognition. So, too, in the synagogue, the scribes sat in the most prominent seats and at banquets the best seats at table were reserved for them.
Jesus abhorred this behaviour and frequently insulted them for this and other things. In today’s reading he accuses them of ‘swallowing the property of widows while making a show of empty prayers’. There are various interpretations of what Our Lord meant but one is that he is accusing the scribes of giving interpretations of the Law that discriminated against defenceless widows in favour of the better off.
It’s a very harsh condemnation which judges their piety and prayers to be false and empty, and is purely for show and a devious means of taking advantage of vulnerable people, like impoverished widows.
No sooner had Jesus finished speaking when a widow came along and placed two small coins – like our pennies – in a donation box in the Temple. Now widows in Palestine were amongst the poorest of people. The care of widows is regularly insisted upon in the Old Testament and the prophets, like Amos and others, fiercely condemn the neglect of them. Some of the Letters in the New Testament highlight how the care of widows was a major concern also of early Christian communities. In such a patriarchal society, a woman was silent, had no rights in law and was always spoken for by her father, husband, brother or son. It’s implied that this widowed woman had no male to speak for her or financially support her. And because widows were not included in inheritance laws, their major preoccupation in life was to survive from day to day, usually on charity.
This particular widow was down to her last two coins which were the smallest in circulation. She could have kept one back – wouldn’t we? – but she did not. Instead, she gave away both, letting go of whatever bit of security she had in order to fulfil her religious obligation to make a donation to the Temple.
While Jesus appears at first glance to praise the widow’s sacrifice, he actually laments it. For him, this widow is a victim of the religious establishment that taught, expected and approved of such a sacrifice from a destitute person. She actually was giving her last coins to the Temple’s charitable fund for supporting poor people, just like her. While it was the duty of the scribes and others in authority to redistribute the fund entirely to the poor, Jesus accuses them of spending it for their ‘long robes’ and ‘‘banquets’. This then is another way scribes ‘swallowed the property of widows’.
So what is Jesus saying to in this story?
First of all, it’s a reminder that there are people in our midst, all around us, here and abroad, who are victims of injustice and are destitute in various ways but whom we do not see because we are caught up in our own (First World) problems. This is a constant theme in Pope Francis’ teaching. This Gospel challenges us aware of these people, see them as Jesus does, do what we can to end their being ‘ripped off’ and respond as best we can to their plight.
The scribes are presented as ostentatious, devious and acting more out of self-interest than the love of God or people. There can be an element of self-interest in each of us also. So we might ask: what are my motives when I do good for others? Am I driven as much by ‘what’s in it for me’ as genuinely wanting to help.
In material terms what the widow donated was very little. She gave less money to the collection than the better off but Jesus says she actually gave more because it was ‘all she had to live on’. Which group do we identify with when it comes to giving – the better off who do not miss the donation or the widow whose giving actually hurts? And how much of what we give – in time or in other ways – is truly part of us?
Whichever we identify with, Our Lord’s teaching is also a warning to all of us in parish and parish Church, not least clergy, to beware of the temptation of self-importance, hypocrisy and even greed.
Holy Name, Jesmond
7 November 2021