– Mark 12:38-44 ‘Two ways…’

Reflection by Anne Stewart

I heard someone say this week that they felt themselves wince a few times when they heard the story of Jesus denouncing the scribes and the widow’s offering.  In the clip I was watching someone else said that this was an appropriate reaction and noticing how many times you winced might be helpful.  Did you feel a wince or two?  I wonder at what point…

The story certainly has its challenges, for those living in the time of Jesus, and for us today.  It feels like a story of two parts, or maybe it’s more a story about two ways of being.  Two ways of being religious, two ways that are inextricably connected and it could be argued that one way might have contributed to the other.  There are two expressions of power here too; we see the behaviour of the powerful contrasted to the behaviour of the powerless.  There is a way of being noticed contrasted to a way of being unnoticed.

Even though it would seem that most of us are drawn first to the woman in the story let’s start with the scribes.  Resplendent in their flowing robes and grand gestures, these men, according to Jesus, demanded attention and respect in the marketplace.  They occupied the best seats in the synagogues and honour at the banquets.  They made an obvious show of their piety by praying long prayers that would attract the notice of those they lauded over.  These days we are less likely to use long flowing robes but there are still ways that a few people in authority use to ensure they stand out and are noticed.  In ministry this can occasionally be a helpful thing in that people recognise you and your role, (something that generally evades me).  I notice still that most people when they come looking for the ‘minister’ initially look for a man, and then I suspect Dan might notice that they look for an ‘older’ man.  I don’t know about you, Dan, but I often enjoy watching their faces as the reality dawns on them.  Sometimes they have to work hard to stop the initial reaction revealing disappointment or confusion as to how this was ever allowed to happen!

My personal objection to long flowing robes or anything that makes me stand out is that these things too often create a barrier, or they immediately bring old prejudices to mind, or expectations of how I will be, long before anyone actually does anything to find out.  This can mean that some dismantling of old ideas of ministry has to be done before we can even get started.  I often find that at funerals where people expect the minister to be like they knew them to be thirty, forty or more years ago.  But I do concede that there are some places and some people that these obvious identifying aids can be a positive thing for.  Long-flowing robes may not be how today’s scribes dress to impress, but a change in dress code doesn’t mean a similar thing isn’t still done.  Martin and I were having lunch in a café in another town recently and two men were sitting nearby.  One we recognised as a clergy man because we had worked alongside him not so long ago in a funeral setting but also his dog collar confirmed his role but the other clean cut well-dressed man had modern day ‘man of authority’ in a church written all over him.

I digress, let’s get back to the story.  For the scribes, this show of authority and place in society was how they did religion.  This was their way of being devout and holy. I would argue that this was also what the widow was being.  Devout and holy but in her way, perhaps the only way she could.  For a woman in those times, losing her husband would also mean losing her standing in the community, her voice, her income, her identity as a person to be respected or even noticed.  Widowhood would have meant instant invisibility leaving her with no rights and no place.  This could possibly bring with it great motivation to look after your husband and keep him alive!  I wonder who set that system up!

Often this passage is read, understandably, as Jesus heaping praise on the woman for her humility and her generosity.  But it could be argued that Jesus was also making a comment on where the work of the scribes, the powerful, had left her, powerless.  The scribes puffing themselves up had the effect of pushing her down.  Their relentless ‘look at me’ ways, leaving her even less visible and overlooked.  Jesus doesn’t name her but he does notice her.  We recognise this as a feature in most of the Jesus stories, how he notices those that are generally ignored or pushed to the side by the world around them.  Karoline Lewis, Professor of Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary in Minnesota, suggests that the widow ends up “where a lot of women end up — sandwiched between self-aggrandizement and the attraction of the grand. Between violence and power. Between being over-looked and being overlooked. It’s just where too many assume she should be, of course, and where they like to keep her, lest they might end up like her.”  She goes on to question how many of us look at the widow and think we really want to be like her.  But do we want to be alone, destitute, and dependent?  For, if we give too much away then we might just end up like her so we generally like to make sure we have covered all the things we want or need before we see what’s left; what’s free to be given away.  This seems a prudent approach doesn’t it.  

So, if this story is not about challenging us into giving more than we think we can, what is it about?  Why is this story told, and what does it have to tell us today?

I wonder if this story reveals a truth about ourselves.  That we too are very good at ignoring the widow (the invisible), both because we really don’t want to be her and also because helping someone in her space will require a sacrifice much like the one she made.  I wonder too if this story is challenging us to think about who the invisible are in our lives here and now.  Is this the point perhaps, where the story makes us wince?  When we are reminded of those we don’t see, whether this is intentional or not.  Does the story point to that thin line we walk between pity and empathy, between feeling good about ourselves and compassion?  And maybe too we hold this woman up because then we can more easily forget who she truly was and is.  If we turn her into an illustration, then we don’t have to address her reality. 

Maybe too, through the way in which Jesus saw straight through the scribes and their posturing, this is a story about how God sees through ours.  How God sees straight through our self-attentive ways, our tendencies to self-preservation, our constant leaning toward that which might build us up, even when it’s at the expense of those who might really need our help.  The widow gave her all, just as Jesus would soon too.  We are not fooling anyone if we give, believing this to be God’s work, if we haven’t reckoned with the cost.

As I said earlier, this story contains two ways of being devout and holy.  In most of the things that challenge us there are at least two ways of being.  And we have to find our way within that.  We have to make a call on how we see things and how we will be as a result of that choice.  We have this conundrum in front of us currently.  People on both sides of the vaccination debate think they are doing the right thing to keep everyone safe, and in the more sensible corners people on both sides think they have the science to back up their decision.  I am not sure it’s as clean as one side being like the scribes and the other like the widow, except to say perhaps that both groups think they are doing the right thing.   But like the scribes and the widow, there remains a call in our current situation to look at motives – at what drives the decision-making process.  Who are we serving in making the call we make?  Who are we trusting to help us in making our decisions?  Who are we not noticing or dismissing too easily because they have a different way of understanding the issues? 

They are not easy, these big decisions that divide us.  And sometimes we have to ‘give our all’ trusting even when we are unsure, afraid, invisible, or alone.  And ultimately of course we all find ourselves in this place from time to time.  It’s tough, whatever side of the argument you find yourself on especially where you have friends or loved ones on the opposite side, but there are bigger things that can hold us together, ways of being that point to what connects us rather than divides us.  Being kind, compassionate, caring, generous, noticing, listening – even those we disagree with.  Because that’s our primary call, to love God by loving our neighbour.  As Michael Leunig says, love one another it’s as simple as that and as difficult as that.