Mark’s Gospel:
Every Single Penny

The Need for Good News

As we sweep up the memories of a long year, full of polarizing, political headlines, the rise in the death toll among innocent black lives, stomach wrenching international conflicts, and the loss of music’s most magical performers, 2016 feels like a mess. Where do we even begin? For many who carry a laundry list of concerns about this previous year, the outlook of a new year feels gloomy at best.

Every Single Penny

Stories of corrupt political regimes, rumors of turbulent social climates, and struggling, disenfranchised voices are not new. For followers of Jesus, the Gospel of Mark provides us with a relevant starting place for approaching the new year.

Why Mark?

Mark’s Gospel often gives attention to minor characters; fringe figures who are otherwise ignored or forgotten. If we imagine Mark as a live performance, the character on center stage would be Jesus, who in turn directs our attention to God. As the spotlight follows Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem, the place of his death, the viewer will notice that he often shares the spotlight with characters found in the shadows.

Mark draws our attention to people and places we may otherwise overlook.  We marvel as Jesus’ irresistible call pulls these shadowy characters into the spotlight, often over and against society’s more talented showstoppers. One of these figures in Mark is a poor widow with a generous heart (Mark 12:41–44).

As followers of Jesus, we continually divest ourselves from the powers of this world, the institutions of money and power—this is one lesson we learn from the faith of the widow. Like her, we are called to give God everything we have even if it means giving to institutions that will not last.

Mark’s prelude to this widow is a brief denouncement of the scribes. According to the Evangelist, the scribes puff out their chests and demand respect from the masses in the market place (12:3840). They are society’s elite. They are the moral and religious majority. They have partnered with the political powers to build an empire for themselves on the backs of figures much like the lowly widow.

This is not the first time Jesus has condemned this elite posse either (1:21–22; 2:1–12, 15–17; 3:22–30; 7:1–15; 9:14–19); in fact, these are among the very troublemakers Jesus said would reject him (8:31; 10:33). Mark’s Gospel even begins by telling us that Jesus’ new teaching is different from the scribes’ teaching (1:22); Jesus has authority, the scribes don’t. The main offense in this present scene, according to Jesus, is that they “eat up” the houses of widows. In other words, they fatten themselves off of the poverty of others.

A Penny for Your Donation

On the heels of Jesus’ criticism of those overly pious keepers of the Temple, a poor widow appears. Jesus, in the meantime, sits near the temple treasury, watching from afar (12:41). As readers, we share Jesus’ view of the story, eager to see who puts how much into the temple funds.

Imagine for a moment the theatrics involved in public donations. The elite who put in large sums of money are greeted with cheery-eyed smiles and shouts of praise, as they turn around to the gathered crowd. Others, with less money, are at best ignored and at worst silently judged.

After some hefty donations, the widow deposits two small coins, the lowest denomination available at the time. Breaking from the silent gawks of the crowd, Jesus calls over his disciples and says, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury” (12:43). It is the widow and her donation that Jesus lauds. Immediately after this episode, Jesus predicts the fateful end to the Temple (13:123). The irony is that the widow’s coins were cast into a system that would not last.

Christians’ Responsibility

This story’s complexity is one worth sitting with as we begin a new year. Many may feel that they, like the widow, have invested in a system bound for disaster. What can we say to them? This story also leaves us wondering about political powers that take advantage of the poor. How are religious entities complicit in the devouring of society’s most fragile?

Mark’s snapshot of this widow leaves us with more questions than answers. However, Jesus’ attention to this widow as well as to her gift demonstrates an important lesson for the ethics of God’s Kingdom.

On the one hand, Jesus, quite uncomfortably, demands everything from his followers. As followers of Jesus, we continually divest ourselves from the powers of this world, the institutions of money and power—this is one lesson we learn from the faith of the widow. Like her, we are called to give God everything we have even if it means giving to institutions that will not last.

On the other hand, that lesson should not leave us satisfied with regard to how the widow is treated. The story quickly moves on, not assuaging our craving for justice for the widow and her money. We return to our initial bewilderment, wondering, where do we even begin?

The God of the Oppressed

It is in this moment that we must pause and take up the mantle of Mark’s story. Jesus highlights for us the power dynamics in the kingdom of God by leveling a harsh critique against the scribes, representative of society’s elite. He characteristically forces the reader’s attention to the impoverished widow and locates God’s power in the powerless.

If we couple this scene with the Temple’s coming destruction, in the very next chapter and verse (13:1–2), we see how the widow’s act of faith topples the powers oppressing her. The widow remains, while the institution oppressing her does not. More so, we find that the power is not in her investment, but in the God who infinitely invests in her. This God has a vested interest—indeed, has invested every single penny—in the powerless according to Mark (7:2430; 10:1316; 14:39), the pinnacle of which is a powerless, crucified Jesus (15:2132).

Caring for the Least of These

Mark’s little vignette requires us to think critically about the “widows” in our own lives and the systems, especially the religious and political systems, oppressing them. We must turn our own attention, as Mark’s Gospel encourages us, to these same characters and to their stories. Who in the coming year will be most at risk, most marginal, or most frightened?

Mark teaches us that these are the people in whom God chooses to invest. God invests in the powerless often right under the noses of the powerful. Who might these figures represent for you and I today? God invests in the Syrian refugee, God invests in the undocumented immigrant, God invests in the Muslim American, and God invests in many more. God even invests in the high schooler who tests your patience, week after week—more than that, God asks you to invest in this person as well.

God’s investments may not produce the successes demanded by Wall Street, but they are the investments that last. This week, join God in caring for the least of these, participating in bringing good news to a world that needs to hear it. Make an investment that lasts, and care for the widows in your life as we begin 2017.

About the Author: J.P. O’Connor

JP O'Connor

M. John-Patrick O’Connor is a PhD student at Princeton Theological Seminary. He earned his MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary and BA from Northwest University (Kirkland, WA).

He currently serves as a Program Coordinator for the Certificate in Theology and Ministry Program at Princeton Seminary. His primary research interests include apocalyptic literary themes in the New Testament, and Pauline anthropology.

Prior to seminary, he served as a family pastor in Lakewood, WA. He is happily married to his wife, Krista, and has been a Seattle Seahawks fan from birth.

J.P. is the author of Kindred Youth Ministry’s newest Youth Ministry study, Mark’s Discipleship.