Is poverty what it used to be? Or has poverty grown so shameful that we dare not speak its name? So determined are we keep poverty out of view, we erase the presence of the poor from Jesus’ teachings. The widow we encounter in Mark 12:38-44 provides a case study in poverty and oppression. Unable to confront poverty, we have turned her into something safer – an example of generosity.
The election has just passed. As I’m writing this, I don’t know who will win. I do know this: neither presidential candidate could work up the courage to address poverty as a serious issue, at least not directly. If Democrats typically look out for the poor, you wouldn’t know it from President Obama; Mitt Romney mentioned the poor more often than did the president, if only to remind voters that the economy is struggling. For his part, Obama avoided the “p-word,” even if he discussed policies that could remedy the poverty problem. Some of our political leaders do include the poor in their policy work, but they face an uphill struggle.
My grandparents remembered how things were when they came of age: “Sure, we were poor. Everybody was poor,” they used to say. In the 1930s and 40s cash on hand was rare, and luxuries few. Lots of kids picked cotton at summer’s end to supplement the family income. “But,” they said, “we always had enough to eat.” Like most of their neighbors, they owned their own land, grew their own vegetables, and raised animals for their meat and eggs.
My grandparents remembered the honorable poverty of days long past. In our day ordinary people so fear poverty that we avoid the subject altogether. Millions of us make more than enough money to get by, but we also know that we’re just one layoff, one medical crisis, one accident away from joining the ranks of the poor. If we lose our good jobs and wind up seeking entry-level or wage employment, many of us will find it impossible to keep paying those mortgages. Poverty lurks for all of us, and half of all Americans will face poverty before we turn 65.
Those of us who cling to our middle-class status are more likely to go to church than are the truly poor, so we allow ourselves to imagine poor people as being somehow different from ourselves. As a result, we need help recognizing poverty’s presence. Congregations might view the new Sojourners documentary called “The Line” that recounts the stories of poor people in our midst. And a brilliant book by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco introduces us to ordinary people who inhabit the “sacrifice zones” created by our economy.
Here’s the deal: Jesus didn’t allow his listeners to forget about the poor. At one level, it was impossible to do so. Nearly everyone in the ancient world lived in poverty, often dire poverty. Jesus’ world included a very few wildly wealthy people, a few people finding ways to make money and accumulate wealth, lots of people scratching a living off the land, and lots of people living on the margins of the economy. Jesus, the Gospels tell us, moved among the poor. He told stories (we call them parables) about rich landowners and their poor and enslaved laborers. He warned the rich that they faced God’s judgment, while he demonstrated compassion by feeding the masses who followed him out into the wilderness.
Our determination to turn our eyes from poverty leads to perverted interpretation. In Mark 12:38-44 Jesus calls attention to a poor widow. She contributes two copper coins to the temple treasury, “her whole livelihood” according to the Greek, and Jesus judges her contribution as greater than the large sums contributed by the rich.
When church budget time rolls around, countless preachers call their congregations to emulate this poor widow by increasing their annual giving. Heck, we’ll even help you: many churches now take donations online or by direct deposit.
The poor widow indeed exemplifies sacrificial giving, but only a perverted imagination can turn her story into a general example. Mark’s Gospel goes out of its way to make clear that she is just as much a victim as a hero.
The most important hint lies in the context Mark provides. The poor widow’s story does not stand alone. Instead, it follows Jesus’ condemnation of the scribes who run the very temple to which she contributes. “Watch out for the scribes,” Jesus says. They’re all about themselves and their status. But Jesus goes on: “They devour widows’ houses.” Having said this, Jesus immediately calls attention to one of those widows who have nothing left. Many preachers read only the widow’s story without Jesus’ condemnation of the scribes. The two stories belong together, the one story telling us how to read the other.
A second clue also involves the passage’s context. The widow places her two coins into the temple treasury, but immediately after her appearance, Mark tells us that Jesus’ disciples express wonder at the glorious temple. Having prophesied the temple’s destruction Jesus then sits “opposite the temple” (13:1-3). So Jesus does not commend the temple! Indeed, Jesus has just observed the temple donations, the widow’s included, from “opposite the treasury” (12:41). Mark is a careful writer, repeating key phrases as commentary on events as they occur. Jesus does not recommend donating to the temple, for he regards its leaders as corrupt and exploitative.
Finally, we might ask ourselves a simple question. Does Jesus seem like the kind of teacher who wants poor people, especially vulnerable widows, to give away their very last resources? Do we seriously imagine Jesus as rejoicing when a widow’s generosity deprives her of “her whole livelihood?" I hardly think so.
The widow’s generosity places the reality of poverty before our eyes. It reminds us that the poor do not represent parasites who drain society of its resources. This story reminds us that we live in an economy that siphons its resources upward and leaves the vulnerable to face destitution on their own – and we inhabit churches that ignore the process. Whether our institutions and religious leaders recognize it or not, we have lots to learn from the poor and the vulnerable. If we would just look.
Greg Carey, is the Professor of New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary, Lancaster, Pa. His most recent book, Sinners: Jesus and His Earliest Followers, pursues the role of transgression in early Christian identity. Carey's ON Scripture post appears via the Odyssey Network, through a grant from the Lilly Foundation. Follow ON Scripture on Twitter @OnScripture.
Poverty illustration, DeepGreen/ Shutterstock.com