Two Small Coins
As we have noted during this section of Mark’s gospel, as we began with the Galilean ministry in the first 8 chapters, this section beginning with chapter 11 is the Temple (Jerusalem) ministry. That is a ministry that happens around the geographical region of the Temple. Within Mark’s gospel, Jesus’ earthly ministry has contrasted with the Scribes’ teaching and ministry, mainly that Jesus teaches with authority, unlike the Scribes. Mark, in contrast to Matthew, does not have much teaching from Jesus’ mouth against the religious leaders. Matthew has an entire chapter in which Jesus gives seven woes to the Pharisees and the scribes. Matthew goes from the question we looked at last week, “how can David call his son lord?” into the strong rebuke found in the seven woes, then Matthew moves to Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem and then begins the teaching of the destruction of Jerusalem, these are absent from Mark’s account. Now, we are not studying Matthew’s gospel, but we can look at how each Gospel author writes to understand the emphasis that they are trying to point out. Mark’s gospel has two major focuses that can help us. First, Mark only mentions the Scribes, whereas Matthew mentions the Pharisees. I believe the reason Mark does this is that he is writing to a non-Jewish audience that does not need to get consumed by the terms like Pharisees and scribes. You might expand this to mean ‘experts in the law.’ The second is that Mark includes the story of the widow following the rebuke of the Scribes as a means of contrast. This contrast is how we will approach this text.
I. The facade of the Scribes
During Jesus’ time in the temple, he has strongly rebuked the religious leaders; he has turned over their tables, explaining that his house should be a house of prayer, but they had made it into a den of robbers (Mark 11:17). They tried to find out who gave him the authority to do these things, but he would not answer, because they would not answer him. Jesus then told the parable of the wicked tenants, whom the religious leaders rightly understood to be against them (Mark 12:12). Then recently we have seen three questions asked of Jesus by various leaders: Pharisees, Sadducees, and one Scribe. Finally, Jesus then asked a question back to the Scribes which had them speechless, unable to answer. Mark 12:36 begins with the simple but strong warning to “beware of the Scribes.” This word is actually, “look” or “see”. This generally can have the cautionary warning of “lookout,” but throughout the Gospel of Mark, it normally has the connection to seeing and perceiving like hearing and understanding (Mark 4:12). That is not that you look at the Scribes but to move deeper to understand the Scribes and the folly of their hearts. So, what exactly does Jesus warn the crowd about the scribes? He warns them of four things of what the Scribes like:
a. Like to be seen by others
The first warning is that the Scribes like to walk around wearing their long robes. Now, this is a strange thing to our western ears. It would be embarrassing for us to be seen in our robes, we would be noticed by everyone, but we would not be honored by anyone as it did in the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry. This robe was a uniform, clean white long robe with long prayer shawls with tassels on each of the corners. This was a statement, especially in contrast to the attire of the crowds, normally dirty and practical. They stood in contrast to others. Their white robes are a statement of their perceived purity. Their flowing prayer shawls are a statement of their prayer piety. They liked this to be seen by others. I have used this illustration before, but they sought to be a peacock on display, showing their beautiful feathers to everyone. Their clothes and attire screamed, “look at the Scribes.” However, Jesus says in a different tone, “look at the Scribes.”
b. Like to be greeted by others
They not only like to be seen by others, but love the greetings of others as well. Their peacock strut was not only done in the walls of the synagogue but out publicly, as they loved to be greeted in the marketplace. They love to be loved. We know of people that cannot go into any store without being noticed by others, again this can be lost in translation. It is not they are known by many people, or that people would say hello to them. But the attention that comes with that greeting, mainly the title that comes before their name. It would be like having people greet you in the grocery store with your proper title and make sure it was a public announcement. For example, you see me in the grocery store (please do not do this), and instead of saying hello, you give a large greeting with an official title.
c. Like to be honored by others
The third is that they love to be in places and seats of honor. Again, this can be lost in translation. At church, the first pew is not seen as a place of honor. However, this can be seen in political speeches or even at weddings. The seats at the front are positions of honor reserved for select people. Sitting behind the president as they give the State of Union address is something some politicians dream of; they have finally made it. Or to be seated at the table of the bridal party is one of honor because of closeness to the bride or groom. The Scribes loved this attention, the invitations to sit in the best seats.
d. Like to be heard by others
The last is that they like to have their long prayer heard by others. Matthew records the warning about long prayers in Matthew 6:5: “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.” He continues to explain that Gentiles heap up empty phrases, thinking that in their many words they will be heard (Matt 6:7). The Scribes were known for their long prayers.
Now, does this mean we should not wear long robes, say hello in the grocery store, sit in seats that are designated for certain people, or utter prayers longer than one minute? The warning of the Scribes is not that these things are evil, but there are two things in the text that help us understand the warning. The first is the word translated, like (ESV), desire (NKJV), or love (KJV). To like something and to desire or love something carries a unique sense of weight. Although the ESV translates the word correctly, I think the sense of desire or love moves more to the heart motive of the Scribes. Not that they merely like it when people greet them, or they like the long robes and how they make them feel. Their entire worth and identity come from how others see, address, honor, and hear them. This word translated as desire or love is the same word that came up in chapter ten. When Jesus asked James and John, “What do you want (desire) me to do for you?” Their answer was to sit on the right and left of Jesus in his glory. Jesus asked blind Bartimaeus the same question, “What do you want (desire) me to do for you?” Blind Bartimaeus answered, “teacher, let me recover my sight.” The Scribes if they were asked this question, would say, “Others to think highly of us, as we do of ourselves.” Sadly, they did not seek to follow the greatest commandment, to Love God with their whole heart, soul, mind, and strength. In doing so, they will suffer the greater condemnation because they sought to be loved like God by others.
The second thing we find in this text is not what they do, and not what their heart desires, but how they go about their lifestyle. Jesus explained that the Scribes, “devoured widows’ houses.” This is a strong word used to express how the Scribes treated widows. We are not told how they devoured widows’ houses; however, the focus of this statement is found that they devoured the houses; this word is often used in the Bible to depict devastation and desolation. It is used by the fool who says there is no God and how they treat God’s people (Ps. 14:4). It is used by wild animals eating their prey (Hos 2:12). The experts of the law neglected the law for their advantage. The law commanded them to look after the widow by feeding them (Ex 22:22-24, Dt 14:29, 24:19, 27:19). James explained that this is the true region (Jam 1:27). However, instead of feeding them, they fed them. This is a great warning for the leaders we look to follow, but also for those in leadership. That we are called to be shepherds who care for the flock, but not make shameful gain from the flock (1 Pet 5:3). The Scribes who claimed they knew the commandments of the law did not obey the commandments they taught. They did not love God with their whole heart, soul, mind, and strength. But they also did not love their neighbor as themselves (Mark 12:31). The Scribe who was close to the kingdom of heaven put it this way, “to love [God] with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Mark 12:33). Yet the Scribes sought to have people love them like gods and to love when their neighbors loved them but did not love their neighbors. The Scribes sought to be loved by their neighbor, but not to love their neighbor.
II. The faith of the widow
Here comes the brilliant contrast found in the last four verses in chapter twelve. Most of Chapter 12 has been devoted to parables about the leaders, questions from the leaders, and warnings about the leaders. Yet in the last four verses, you see this slither of light. An example of great faith, in contrast to great facades. The beautiful image of simplicity and weakness that the Christian life is modeled after. Many rich people and their gifts are in contrast to the poor widow and her offering. The warning of how difficult it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven is now on display as Jesus watches people put their money into the offering box. You could imagine, as we have seen, the Scribes who like to show off all that they do. They come to the offering box with their bags of coins, making sure they make the coins make an enormous noise as they put them into the box. Person after person comes to this offering box. Long white robes of the Scribes with their tassels moving. The Mishnah describes 13 offering boxes, Shofar-chests, each for various offerings with a large opening like a trumpet that funnels down into the box. You could imagine the sound of multiple coins ringing at they were placed into these trumpet-shaped tubes. As Jesus sits and watches the offering (this is a thing to ponder, we like some things to remain private. Jesus knows what we give. The apostles knew what Ananias and Sapphira gave).
However, as the crowd comes up and puts their money in, Jesus sees many rich people put in large amounts. Yet, Jesus highlights one woman’s offering. We do not know much about this woman; besides, she is a widow, and she is poor. Many widows lose their husbands could not work because of their age, but also it was a very physical economy. Hiring an older woman would not make economic sense. But we are also told that she was poor (Several times). We see in contrast that you have many rich people and one poor widow. Jesus stops and points out to his disciples this widow offering. The many rich people put in much; however, this one widow puts in two small coins.
Now you might have heard this translated as ‘mites.’ It is hard for us to comprehend the amount, but we shall try. She puts in two of the smallest Jewish coins, which would be about 1/128th of a day’s wage (denarii). Mark, who is writing to a non-Jewish audience, gives the exchange rate that is worth 1/64th of a day’s wage, in Roman currency. Let us then take this into modern rates (I will explain my reasoning after my math). Let us use two examples, the Virginian minimum wage ($11 per hour) and the Federal minimum wage ($7.25). Working a full day (8 hours) at these amounts, (which is a denarius (what the fraction is based on). The widow puts in $1.37 or $0.90. The reason I wanted to explain the math is that when we translate the word to a penny or a cent, we show the contrast to how little she gives comparable to the others, but also it does not show how she gave everything she had, to make it the smallest amount is helpful but we do not grasp that she would have to live off that, what can you get for one penny? Mark explains that she gave all she had to live. Jesus expounds it this way: “For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty…” (Mark 12:44). The others gave out of what was leftover. She gave everything over. The contrast is so striking because they wished to be seen by others, but this widow is seen by Jesus. This woman is being shown as an example of faith, even though the Scribes wanted to be honored by others. The Scribes claimed to know the commandments, but they did not obey the law. Here you see this widow love God and her neighbor.
This widow is the image of discipleship. Peter told Jesus that they had given up everything to follow Jesus. Jesus responded to Peter and explained, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Mark 10:29–31).” The widow gave of everything she had, not that she would be seen or noticed by man, but as a gift to God. This is discipleship, as Jesus explained. What does it cost to be a disciple?
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:34–35).
Discipleship is never about the percentage that we give. If it was of our time, talents, or treasure, then how much should do or give? Discipleship is about all or nothing. There is no halfway to following Jesus because you stop halfway until you cease to follow him. If we seek to hold on to everything, we believe we do not need Jesus. But when we know of our need for Jesus, we know he is our everything. Discipleship is not about how little we can give, but how much Christ has given us. Once we know of Christ’s great sacrifice for his people, his people then deny themselves. John the Baptist said, “He must increase, I must decrease.” The widow gave everything to have everything she needed. The widow is not an example to follow in her deeds, but in her faith. We could give all our money today and place it on the offering plate, but Christ does not want our money. He wants our whole life; our money becomes his, our time becomes his, and our life is now his. Or as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:20, “for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”