Last Sunday’s gospel reading presented two sections which gave two very contrasting pictures of religious people. The first, contained a very severe criticism against the scribes, how they distinguished themselves from the ordinary people by their pretentious and spectacular dress, their desire for honor in the market place, in synagogues and feasts, and in their abuse of the generous religious dispositions of widows to their financial advantage.
The second part specified a very striking contrast. Jesus commends the example of the poor widow, who contributed all she had to the temple offerings. Mark placed these two sections side by side because of two reasons: First, he wanted to highlight this contrast and to bring to climax his account of Jesus’ growing disillusionment with the religious leaders. Secondly, he wanted to teach his disciples the mark of a real disciple of Jesus.
In the first section, the scribes were very harshly criticized by Jesus, why? Man, at any given time, tries to express his relationship with God in rites, sacrifices and prayers. But this praiseworthy attitude of man has its dangers. Those who faithfully observed the laws for rites and prayers could not easily resist the temptation to try to control or manipulate God by their observances – – as if God owed much to them and had, therefore, to grant them favors.
Another consequence was that it led many to pride and self-glory; because they were the good men who scrupulously did all that was to be done for God. That many Pharisees fell to these temptations is evident from the strong language Jesus used against them. They acted as if they had exclusive access to God’s plans and intentions. They interpreted the Law, adapted it to the times, but often in such a manner that the Law was broken up in an infinite number of prescriptions which regulated every detail of life, so much so that they and the people lost sight of the important laws of love and justice.
They imposed burdens on the people which neither they themselves nor the people could carry. As religious leaders and authorities of the Law they were held in high esteem by the people, they thought that they were entitled to this respect and veneration and showed this by dressing flamboyantly, taking front seats in synagogues and places of honor and banquets, even displaying their piety, while some of them exploited widows, the typically poor people.
This empty, hypocritical religiosity condemned by Jesus is put in sharp contrast with the attitude of the widow. She is very poor, yet she puts her last money – – two of the smallest coins in circulation – – as an offering in the treasury of the temple. The rich gave from their surplus, while she gave what she needed for herself, what in human terms she could not afford to give. Jesus sensed and voiced out the deep meaning of the widow’s sacrifice, the more so that soon he himself would even surpass it by emptying himself not merely of his possessions but of his very life, in his passion and death.
The mark of a real disciple of Jesus was shown by the generosity of the widow in giving what she cannot afford. The disciples of Jesus were asked to do the same even to the point of offering their lives for the sake of the kingdom of God. Like the widow in the gospel, we, too, are being asked to do the same. And we learn from the gospel reading. The gospel was truly a lesson in giving.
Real giving must be sacrificial. The amount of the gift is not substantial, nor the size of the gift, but the sacrifice. Real generosity gives until it hurts, and until it hurts no more. For many of us, it is a real question: if ever our giving to God’s work is any sacrifice at all?
Real giving has certain carelessness in it. The widow might have kept one coin. It would not have been much, but it would have been something, yet she gave everything she had. There is a great symbolic truth here. It is our misfortune that there is so often some part of our lives, some part of our activities, some part of ourselves which we do not really give to Christ. Somehow there is nearly always something we hold back. We rarely make the final sacrifice and the final surrender.
It was a beautiful thing that the person whom Jesus handed down to our history as a pattern of generosity was a person who gave a very insignificant amount. We may feel that we have not much in the way of material gifts or personal gifts to give to Christ, but, if we put all that we have at His disposal, He can do things with it and with us that are beyond our imagination.