38 As he taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, 39and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! 40They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’
41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43Then 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. 44For 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.’
Translation: And in his teaching, he said, "You see from the scribes, the ones wishing to walk about in long robes and greetings in the marketplaces, and chief seats in the synagogues and places of honor in the feasts, the ones devouring the houses of widows, and for a pretense, praying long. They will receive more judgment."
And he sat over against the treasury. He was seeing how the crowd threw money into the treasury, and many rich were throwing much. And a poor beggar widow came. She threw two small coins, which is a farthing. And he called his disciples (and) said to them, "Truly I say to you that this beggar widow has thrown more than all the ones throwing into the treasury, for all threw out of their abundance, but she threw, out of her want, all as she had, her whole life."
Background and situation: It is Tuesday of passion week. Jesus had entered the city of Jerusalem two days previous. Upon entering the city, Jesus had gone to the Temple, looked the place over, then left for Bethany which was about two miles away.
The next day, Monday, Jesus came back to the Temple, whereupon he drove out both "those who were selling and those who were buying" (11:15). He overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of those who sold doves. (Doves were the sacrifice of the poor.)
This is a direct attack on the Temple establishment. The Temple was not only a religious institution but an economic one as well. The Temple had hundreds of employees, and Jerusalem was a "company town." The Temple performed many financial functions, including operating as a central bank and treasury.
The Temple priests and scribes lived high on the hog. They received a cut from every Temple sacrifice and were the beneficiaries of a five-shekel tax on every first-born child. This generated great revenue for the priests, but even this was not all. Several other offerings--or perhaps better, taxes--brought in even greater wealth, so much so that priests got into the business of lending money, which means that they also were in a position to foreclose on property if the debt was not paid.
Jesus was not piously shocked at the very idea of commercial activity in a so-called "sacred space." (These are modern distinctions, not first century ones.) Commercial activity had been going on at the Temple for a very long time.
In Jesus' general protest against the Temple, he is said to have done two specific actions. First, he "overturned" the tables of the moneychangers. These "moneychangers" conducted their business on behalf of wealthy Jerusalem families. They were street representatives of moneyed banking interests, you might say, and they charged exhorbitant exchange rates, perhaps as high as 50%.
Second, he "overturned the seats" of those who sold doves. Obrey Hendricks (The Politics of Jesus) says that Simeon, the son of the great rabbi Gamaliel, criticized the inflated pricing of sacrificial doves. Doves were an acceptable sacrifice for poor people, but the poor could no longer afford even these. As a result of Simeon's protest, the price of sacrificial doves was lowered by 99%--and the merchants still made money!
Jesus interprets his disruptive action with reference to two great prophets, Isaiah and Jeremiah. Isaiah had said the Temple was to be "a house of prayer for all peoples" (Is 56:7), but the great prophet Jeremiah had called it a "den of robbers." Jesus use of this phrase from Jeremiah recalls Jeremiah's scathing attack on the Temple in Jeremiah 7: 1-15.
Mark says that Jesus "would not allow anyone to carry anything through the Temple" (11:16). The word translated in NRSV as "anything" isskeuos, which could also, and probably should be, translated as "vessel." Jesus would not allow them to carry religious vessels through the Temple. Not only did Jesus seek to undermine the economic base of the Temple, he also interfered with its religious functioning.
The day after: The day after this outrageous incident, on Tuesday of what we know as Holy Week, Jesus again returned to the Temple. He teaches on several controversial topics, skewering all of his major opponents--chief priests, scribes, elders, Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herodians--to the great delight of the crowd (12:37). Jesus has these powerful big shots rocking back on their heels, and the people are loving it.
Then, Jesus again speaks about the scribes, i.e. Temple lawyers. He goes after them at some length. They desire--thelo--to prance around in long robes, receive greetings in the marketplaces, and sit in the most desirable seats in the synagogues and at dinners.
In a society heavily influenced by issues of honor and status, the scribes keep angling for more recognition and higher privilege. Jesus mocks them for it.
Apart from their hypocritical and ostentatious display, the scribes also do real damage. They are "the ones devouring the houses of widows." When someone died, the lawyers would swoop in and help "manage" the deceased person's estate. These matters were too weighty to be left to women, after all. Naturally, the scribes would charge a fee for this "service."
Making matters even worse, the scribes accompanied their exploitation with a thick layer of sanctimony--"for a pretense, praying long." One might recall Abraham Lincoln's reference to those who take their depotism "pure, without the base alloy hypocrisy." These scribes, says Jesus, will "receive more judgment" (krima).
Then--note the stage direction--Jesus "sat over against--kateanti--the treasury." This treasury was located in the Court of Women. It consisted of 13 flute-shaped chests into which people threw their offerings.
This was quite an open procedure. Donors would state publicly the amount of their gift and the purpose for which it was given. That such a system might generate some "showing off" would not be surprising.
Jesus draws a contrast between the "many rich" who were "throwing much" and the one poor "beggar widow" who threw in two insignificant little coins. (It took somewhere between four and eight of them to make a penny.) This widow, incidentally, is identified as ptochoi--the poorest of the poor, a widow reduced to begging.
Jesus then called his disciples. He prefaced his remark to them with "truly I say to you," indicating a message of special import. The poor woman has given more than anyone, he says, "for all threw out of their abundance, but she threw" out of her poverty.
Note Jesus' three-fold description of the woman's economic condition. Jesus had described the scribes in considerable (unflattering) detail. He also describes the woman's condition in detail. She gave "out of her want, all as she had, her whole life." (The last phrase--holon ton bion--is translated in NRSV as "all she had to live on." Literally, the phrase is: "her whole life.")
Jesus does not laud the woman. Contrary to many sermons delivered since which encourage people to this level of sacrificial giving, Jesus does not lift the beggar-widow up as an example, or suggest that anyone ought to emulate her. She is not a positive example, but rather the (barely) living representative of a crying shame. She represents the on-going exploitation of the poor by the Temple elite.
In the passage cited earlier by Jesus, the prophet Jeremiah (7:1-15) had said that the pious incantation of "the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord" meant nothing. Only if "you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow" will the Lord God "dwell with you in this place."
In the first century, the warning of Jeremiah was more on point than ever. Not only did the Temple "devour widows' houses," they also took at least one beggar-widow's "whole life."
Image: Widow's mite, quilt by Laura Conowich