Exegesis of the Gospel: Mark 12:38–44
Once again we find Jesus criticizing the scribes, the experts in interpreting the Torah. They were an ancient version of a lawyer. Not all scribes were self-serving as the ones depicted in this passage. Jesus is not condemning all scribes—only the ones who fail to carry out their duties justly and with compassion.
1) The corrupt scribes. The scribes Jesus condemns are easy to spot. They keep a very visible profile with fancy clothes, greeting the right people at the marketplaces, and always seeking the honorable places at banquets and similar celebrations. They have a reputation of representing widows as trustees of their estates —and then taking a huge share of the estate as their pay. This kind of behavior, of course, reflects badly on honorable and just scribes. Jesus clearly states that the corrupt scribes will receive a severe condemnation. Jesus obviously wants his own disciples to know that they are never to imitate these corrupt scribes.
2) The poor widow. Jesus moves his attention away from the corrupt scribes and focuses on a poor widow. The connection between the scribes and this poor widow is that the scribes took advantage of such widows. Apparently, Jesus and his disciples were casually observing people paying their temple tax by putting money into the appropriate treasury. The wealthy contributed large amounts because they could do that without suffering hardship. Then Jesus spotted a poor widow who put two small coins into the treasury. He called this to the attention of his disciples, indicating that the widow had actually contributed more than the rich people because she gave from her poverty while they gave from their wealth.
3) Praise or condemnation? Many interpreters think that Jesus is praising this poor widow for giving all she had to the temple. That makes her gift more valuable than the contributions of the wealthy. However, Jesus could well be criticizing the temple system for allowing a poor widow to contribute the money she needed to live on. If anything, the temple should offer to help the poor widow and not take “her whole livelihood.” Later on, Jesus will predict the destruction of the temple. It failed to care for the widow and the orphan.