The gospel writer makes connections by the placement of his stories.
I never assume that the gospel writers compiled their gospels thoughtlessly. We may think that they just joined one story to another as a jeweler might string a strand of beads. However, that’s not the case. How they place individual stories or sayings in their broader gospel narrative often reveals connections they want us to make between the stories they recount.
A good example is the story Mark tells that we often label the tale of the widow’s mite (Mark 12:41-44). It recounts an incident in Jesus’ life, which Mark places in the events of Holy Week.
Jesus is sitting in the Jerusalem temple, watching the crowds who enter. Many drop a money gift into the temple’s cash box. Those who are affluent drop sizeable amounts. Then a widow makes her donation. It is a tiny sum: just two small coins that are valued what our translations call a penny. (It is hard to know how to value this sum in today’s currency. But think of it as a miniscule value, like two dollar bills.)
Calling his disciples to him, Jesus comments that she has given the most of all. The rich have given large sums, but those sums amount to no great sacrifice for them. The widow, however, has given everything she has, in fact, everything she has to live on.
The text calls us to admire her for her extreme generosity…or her sincere religious devotion. That is what most preachers focus on when they preach this text. But I contend there is much more going on by Mark placing this story where he does.
In the verses preceding (Mark 12:38-40), Jesus has been criticizing the religious elite who make a great display of their religiosity. They expect public esteem. But while the community honors them, they are behind the scenes devouring the property of widows, reducing them to poverty. One is left to wonder if it is one of those very scribes who has in fact reduced this particular widow to her poverty.
In the story that follows the poor widow (Mark 13:1-4) Jesus foresees the destruction of the temple, the very institution the elite are so lavishly supporting. He has already driven the merchants and money changers out of the temple’s courts. Now he foresees the collapse of the whole institution, which has lived off the temple tax and contributions given by people like the widow in our story. Like the barren fig tree, the temple culture has not produced the spiritual fruit God expects from it, despite the lavish sums invested in it.
Mark lays before us this stark contrast between the pious who exploit the poor and the poor who live out a genuine piety. This richness of meaning comes as we read the three stories together and recognize hidden connections between them.
Connections with Other Scripture
The contrast that Mark develops reminds me of the same contrast that the gospel writer Luke develops in his parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). There Jesus tells of a Pharisee who goes to the temple to pray. He lays out before God all the right and pious things he has done, unlike the sinful tax collector standing nearby. Presumably this entitles him to a special divine blessing.
The tax collector, however, sees himself truly, with all his flaws and failures to live up to God’s standards. As a result, he prays, “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.” In no way does he presume he is entitled to any blessing. Yet, Jesus says, he is the one who returns home in right relationship with God.
We see the same striking contrast between the religious elite and the despised and marginalized ones of society. Both stories make the same point. It is a point that we find constantly repeated in the Old Testament prophets.* Lavish religious piety (and I might add moral scrupulosity) counts for little when that piety and scrupulosity are contradicted by the practice of social injustice. Yet, despite the frequency of this point in Scripture, we Christians, just as much as the ancient Jews, find it hard to root this insight into our core consciousness.
* The classic text is Amos 5:21-24. But Amos is not alone in his message.