Historical Culture Context
Scribes and Widows
In a public place and likely within earshot of his targets, Jesus hurls a scathing insult at the scribes by urging the crowd to be wary of them. The scribes of Jesus’ day were experts in the Law of Moses, scholars to whom people turned for proper understanding of God’s will as revealed in Scripture. They contributed to the development of rabbinism in the third century of the common era, the forerunner of modern-day Judaism.
Jesus publicly criticizes their behavior as a ceaseless grasping for honor. The Talmud notes that when two people meet in the marketplace, the one inferior in knowledge of the Law should greet the other first. Since no one knew the Law as well as the scribes, they sought out and basked in this recognition.
In the synagogue the scribes claimed the best seats which were those on a platform facing the people. People seated on these chairs rested their backs against the same wall that held the ark which contained the Torah scrolls.
At banquets, the best seats were reserved for people of importance like experts in the Law.
Jesus concludes his attack by accusing the scribes of “devouring widows’ houses.” No sooner has Jesus spoken than a widow comes along and places two of the smallest coins in first-century Palestine into the coffers, thus fulfilling her religious duty.
Jesus’ comment on the widow’s donation is not a word of praise but rather a word of lament: “Truly I say to you this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For they all contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living” (Mk 12:43-44).
The word for “widow” in Hebrew carries the meaning of one who is silent, who is unable to speak. Recall that all of Mediterranean culture is divided along gender lines. Men belong in the public sphere; women remain secluded with the children deep within the home. Men play the public role, and women do not speak on their own behalf.
A widow is already bereft of her husband, the male in whom she was embedded. If her eldest son was not yet married, she was even more disadvantaged. And if she had no sons at all, she might have to return to her family of origin (see Lev 22:13; Ruth 1:8) if that were still possible. As the Pastoral Epistles indicate, widows constituted a major concern in the early Christian community. Younger ones posed a special danger, and the author of those Epistles urged them to remarry (1 Tim 5:3-16, esp. v. 14).
Because widows were not included in Hebrew inheritance laws, their constant concern was simply living from day to day. Any resources this widow had were meager at best. In the Mediterranean world, the cultural obligation upon everybody is to maintain one’s status and do nothing to jeopardize or lessen it. If, as Jesus observes, this woman has given to the Temple “all she had to live on,” the woman has acted very shamefully. She has deliberately worsened her status.
Jesus does not praise but rather laments this woman’s behavior. She has been taught “sacrificial giving” by her religious leaders, and that is the pity. These authorities promised to redistribute Temple collections to the needy. In actuality, they spent the funds on conspicuous consumption instead: long robes and banquets. This is how they “devoured the estates of widows” (Mk 12:40).
John J. Pilch
**From Saint Louis University