Mark presents us with portraits of two different kinds of people in our Gospel passage today and may well be hinting at the dangers inherent in institutional or organised religion.
The scene is the Temple in Jerusalem, the context a consideration about the legal and theological authorities known as the scribes. We have seen Jesus interacting positively with a member of this group, but now he takes a more negative view of some of the other scribes, who indulge in self-promoting behaviour. As well as attracting attention by their rather flamboyant dress and seeking places of honour in the synagogue and at banquets, they appear to abuse their position as lawyers in charge of the estate of widows: such women were traditionally regarded as being in need of special protection, given their vulnerable situation in the society of the day. These men are accused of exploiting their position of trust for monetary gain, which would be condemned by the prophets of Israel.
The mention of widows suggests that the second section should be considered along with the first. This is the episode often referred to as “the widow’s mite”, the portrait of the woman who had little, but gave it all for the upkeep of the Temple, the House of God. The usual interpretation is that Jesus commends her action as an outstanding example of generosity; but could it be that he is deploring a situation whereby she feels compelled to put the apparent requirements of the Temple (and its staff) in front of her own very pressing needs?
One problem with the written word is that we cannot know for certain the tone of voice in which a character is speaking. It may be obvious from the context, but in cases such as our Gospel reading today, it may well not be so clear, and it can make all the difference.
A great danger with organised religion is that it requires money to function. Church buildings need to be maintained, clergy need to be supported; but reform movements throughout the history of the Church indicate that keeping the proper balance in such matters can be difficult.
An area in church life which causes a certain amount of unease today is that of Mass stipends and stole fees. Such payments are officially voluntary offerings.
The law of the Church is very clear that any appearance of simony is to be avoided (simony being the intent to deal commercially in sacred things). This is a delicate area, and one which perhaps needs to be considered by the community as a whole. Is it a good thing that a priest should be more or less dependent on offerings for sacramental services? How does this practice affect those involved? If Jesus is criticising the practice of his day, the fact that it occurs in the Gospel should make us ask how it applies to us now. That the question is difficult means that we should be asking it.
- Scribes were interpreters of the Law and could act for others in legal matters.
- Widows, orphans and poor people were especially vulnerable members of society in biblical times.
- The collection boxes in the Temple were shaped like trumpets and the sound made by coins thrown in revealed the metal – and therefore the value – of the person’s offering.
Ask yourself whether Jesus is commending or deploring the widow’s action. Discuss with others whether you think Mass offerings and stole fees are appropriate today and what might be a better alternative