November 11; 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time; Year B

32nd OTGod is Watching

As Catholics, we shouldn’t always take the Bible literally, but we should always take it seriously. To take the story of the Widow’s Mite seriously, we must keep the condemnation in the story. This story is meant to confront us, but it has, repetitively, been interpreted to condemn others or in a limited way, to highlight the virtue of generous giving. Catholic priests jump at the opportunity to use this passage to highlight the need for Catholics in the pew to give more. The collection usually increases this Sunday, but just this Sunday only! Unfortunately, it usually returns to previous levels the following week, exposing a very Catholic phenomena – Catholics usually give out of guilt, not out of passion or commitment. But the character of the poor widow being held up as a model for generous giving is secondary to the condemnation which precedes and follows this episode.

The story begins with a condemnation of the scribes. The condemnation is primarily concerned with their preoccupation with the mere appearance of holiness. The extent of their faith runs no deeper than religious displays: flowing robes, respectful greetings, seats of honour in the synagogue and at banquets. Just like the rich at Temple treasury, the scribes make a show of themselves too, drawing attention to themselves rather than to what matters – God. Though, the scribes of Jesus’ time may be identified with the clerical class in today’s Church, I think the net of the condemnation is cast wider. Let’s be honest; most of us can be quite vain with our appearances, and this is not confined to personal grooming but also to how others perceive us. We can’t deny that we need to be treated with respect. In fact, this is compounded by the culture of entitlement. We enjoy being honoured, especially for our successes, and acknowledged for our contributions. But our Lord singles out one particular sinister activity of the scribes that reveals the horrendous nature of their hypocrisy: They swallow widows’ properties.

It is not known what the exact nature of “swallow(ing) the property of widows” was in Jesus’ time. The Greek word translated “swallow” (κατεσθίω), suggests an action of “consuming completely,” leaving the victim penniless. The problem with both the scribes and the Pharisees is not simply their religious hypocrisy (though that was itself evil). They compounded their sin of hypocrisy by actually overturning the Law of Moses.

What was the Law of Moses that was being overturned or violated here? In the Old Testament, widows, along with orphans and aliens, were the most vulnerable and dependent class of people in the land. As such, widows were entitled to unique protection under the Law of Moses, which forbade anyone to afflict a widow, and any such violation would result in God punishing the offender with the sentence of death. A widow was particularly vulnerable and dependent because of her inability to provide for herself. A woman without a husband or sons would be unable to support herself. To remedy this, the Law included all sorts of safeguards or safety nets designed to ensure that a widow would not become destitute or starve. A triennial tithe was set aside for them. They were given the right of first gleaning after the harvest had been completed and landowners were specifically warned not to harvest so thoroughly as to leave nothing behind. This backdrop brings into sharp relief the criminal nature of the scribes’ activity. The scribes who had swallowed the property of the widows were guilty on all counts!

The scene swiftly moves from our Lord’s condemnation of the scribes to His observation of the people who make contributions at the Temple. He is observing how the wealthy are making their contributions to the treasury, and making a show of it just like the scribes, when suddenly one lone and impoverished widow enters the scene. She also makes her contribution, but by any normal standard it is an insignificant amount. The amount she gave made no difference to the Temple. It was worthless. But in Jesus’ eyes, however, it is an offering beyond ordinary measure. He tells His disciples that the widow’s offering is actually greater than all the offerings made by the rich because the value of the offering is best measured against the financial worth of the offerer. It was far superior to the others, for it was all that she owned. At this point, we can recall our Lord’s teachings to His disciples on bearing their cross and offering self-denying service to others. The poor widow has embodied that teaching in her own sacrificial giving. How different she is from the wealthy, who give only from their surplus (after their own needs are satisfied) and thus never feel the joyful pinch of self-denial in the cause of love! Most absurdly, what the Lord observed in His day remains true today — those with the least, by percentage of their resources, continue to give more than the wealthy!

Mark’s concern is to create a sense of contrast between the widow and those who exploit widows. While the scribes use the pretense of religion to gain money, the widow’s piety is expressed through her willingness to give money—even if her giving exhausts all of her resources. She possesses what God loves: faith expressed in good works. It is a matter of genuine faith, which the widow expresses by the generosity of her offering (she trusts that the God of Israel will meet her needs), versus unbelief, which the scribes express by exploiting their office for their own financial gain. The scribes seek to gain honour and privilege in the eyes of men. The poor widow is only concerned with gaining God’s favour. Hers was a faith working through love, theirs was only a hollow religion.

So, how does this story confront us? First, the widow provides us with a picture of true faith, having a confident and complete trust in God. The quality of her faith stands in sharp contrast to the false piety of the hypocrites, who are more concerned with appearances than being in a right state with God. From her example, Christians everywhere are encouraged to live a life of similar faith, meeting the needs of others while trusting that their heavenly Father, “who sees what is done in secret,” will meet their own needs.

Second, the widow is a symbol: She is one of the last exhibits of evidence in God’s court to seal His case against the rot and corruption of Israel, which finally ends in the destruction of the Temple. Let us not be deluded to think that this condemnation is reserved only for the scribes or Israel. This story should also make us cringe. Our indifference to the needs of others, our penchant to pursue self-serving agendas at the expense of others has rendered our worship void. The cries of those whom we have turned a deaf ear or a blind eye to, the victims of our exploitation, will reach the ears and eyes of God. No fraudulent or exploitative act goes unnoticed by the one who sees all. Just like the rich man who was condemned for his indifference to the poor beggar Lazarus, we will not be spared judgment.

Never be deluded into thinking that God is blind or deaf to our predicament. Where is God when the scribes devour the widow’s property? Where is God when there is an injustice? Where is God when our society seems to be losing its moral and spiritual bearings? Where is God when a crime is committed but the perpetrator set free? Where is God when our institutions are corrupted to the core? Today, we have the answer. Our Lord is watching. If He can notice a poor widow drop two tiny insignificant coins into the treasury, we know that He watches our every step. If He can see through the precocious ostentation of the scribes, He will also notice our begrudging attitude, our miserliness and see through our hypocrisy. God is also watching. “He sees you when you’re sleeping, He knows when you’re awake, He knows when you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake!”