The Pilgrim God: Reflections on the Story of Jesus
103. The Widow's Mite (Mark 12:41-44)
It was now early evening of Tuesday of Holy Week. Jesus's days of power (such as they had been) would soon be over. In a few days he would be killed and his disciples would be scattered and left with nothing. They would then face the question faced by so many humans in the course of their earthly lives:
"What can I give to you, O God, when I have lost everything?
.. when I have nothing?
.. when I AM nothing?"
"What can I give to you, O God, when I am young and no one takes me seriously?"
"What can I give to you, O God, when I am sick and too weak to give much?"
"What can I give to you, O God, when I am old and have nothing left to give?"
Jesus tried to answer these questions before they were asked. He tried to show through an incident what Augustine would put into words four centuries later:
"No human being is without value."
(On Freedom of the Will, 3.23)
The event is described in the Gospel written by Mark. Jesus and his disciples were sitting on the steps surrounding one of the internal courts of the Temple, the so-called Women's Court where pious women would come to worship. He and his friends were resting a bit before they made the trip to their camp outside Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives.
It must have been a beautiful sight as they sat there looking beyond the Temple walls as the sun set over the lush hills and gardens of Israel. Though it was fast getting dark, the courtyard was still crowded. To the left was the entrance to the treasury and there thirteen large alms boxes waited for the donations of the pilgrims who had come to the Temple for the feast. Temple officials stood by the certify the various gifts, put them in the right box (each was dedicated to a particular good work) and announce in a loud voice the amount of the donation. It was something like a charity banquet where donors would march to the front, present their check, and proudly return to their seat daring others to match their gift.
It should be said that some of the gifts were quite large. This was the time of the year when the rich could do comfortable penance for the past and prove their piety by the size of their philanthropy. They would grandly sweep up the stairs to the Treasury, proudly present their gift and preen as the Temple official called out the amount. He would announce in a loud voice results like these:
"... This honorable Pharisee gives $200,000 to decorate the altar!"
"... This learned Scribe gives $500,000 for the Temple School!"
"... This wealthy banker gives $1,000,000 for a new Temple court dedicated to himself!"
It was a grand time, almost like a contest, and the crowd would cheer as each magnificent donation was proclaimed.
The enthusiasm was at its peak when a poor widow climbed the steps to the Treasury to make her offering. She could not read and hence was confused about the proper box in which to place her gift. She approached one of the Temple officials for help. He roughly took the gift and threw it into the nearest box, crying derisively:
"God be praised! One penny has been given in thanksgiving for gifts received!"
The poor woman "shrank into the wood-work" in embarrassment and tried to make a quick exit through the laughing crowds.
Jesus, watching from across the court, was enraged. He said to his disciples:
"Did you see what those barbarians did to that poor woman? Someday they will learn the truth ... the truth that of all those who gave gifts today, that woman gave the greatest. The rest of those hypocrites did not lose anything because of their gifts. They had more than enough left for themselves. But that woman gave everything she had. She gave all that she had to live on. She gave herself!"
"I tell you solemnly, this is the gift God wants from every human being. He does not want your things; he wants your very self. Others need your charity and you should give them what you can; but God almighty wants your heart. He wants you to love him more than anything else."
"Remember this truth in the days ahead, the days when you shall feel powerless and alone: No matter how helpless you are, how weak you are, how old you are, how young you are, you always have the power to give what you are to Almighty God. And this indeed is the only gift he wants from you."
Jesus then got up and followed the woman out of the temple. He wanted to tell her that she was the richest of humans. She had given away all that she had and now God had come to fill her emptiness with himself.
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