The Gospels are stories. That seems like an obvious statement, but making it may help us understand how to become better readers of these stories. Instead of viewing them only as historical records of what happened in Jesus’ life and ministry, we should treat them more for what they are; stories written for the purpose of communicating to their audiences how to live as disciples of Jesus.
Because these ancient texts are stories, they have the characteristics of other narratives that we might encounter. They have plot and conflict. They use time and space for literary purposes. But perhaps the most important feature that these narratives have is the way they present characters as models of how to live and how not to live.
For example, the disciples, who are the most prominent characters other than Jesus, actually serve more often as examples not to follow. They are frequently portrayed as bumbling idiots who never really understand Jesus’ mission and their role as followers of Jesus.
Yet, there are characters in the Gospels that we need to see clearly even though we might skip over them in our casual reading of these narratives. These characters are considered minor characters, for they only briefly appear in the narratives. Yet, when we carefully read the Gospels, we actually discover that these minor characters serve as major models that often express the ideals of what it means to follow Jesus.
These characters are for the most part people who seem insignificant. They are often not named. They are also those who are on the outside of normal existence in the first century world as many of them are shunned from community because of their illness, their impurity, their gender, and their economic plight. They are unimportant people. Yet, they are the ones to whom we should look to discover what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.
We could spend a great deal of time looking at each of these minor characters and how each one teaches us how to follow Jesus, in contrast to the twelve men who follow Jesus. But, in this reflection, I want to highlight one woman who plays a significant role in epitomizing what it means to follow Jesus, even though she is not in the company of his closest friends.
In my last Lenten reflection, I wrote about Jesus’ actions in the temple and how his actions declared an end to the temple because of how corrupt it had become and how the temple structure worked to exclude others.
As we move from that scene in Mark 11 and encounter the scene of Mark 12, we find Jesus in the temple courts, teaching and answering theological questions. But just before he leaves the vicinity of the temple, Jesus sits and watches folks bring in their tithes and offerings to the temple treasury.
We are not sure why he was doing this. Perhaps he was confirming what he already knew about the temple; that it really was a place of corruption and that those who gave to the temple really only brought their gifts in order to be seen doing so.
But, as he watches the wealthy bring their gifts into the temple, Jesus notices a woman that no one else sees. While others stood around watching the rich bring in their elaborate gifts, receiving praise for what they have given, Jesus notices a poor widow come in and lay onto the treasury a small coin.
Those of us who have grown up in church are very familiar with this woman. Indeed, we have become even more familiar with her gift, referred to as the “Widow’s Mite”. Who among us cannot remember hearing this story when we were children attending Sunday School?
But like many of the stories that we learn from childhood, the story of this woman may have become so familiar to us that it simply becomes part of the lore of our faith instead of what it is intended to do: Confront us with our own greed and call us to sacrificial giving.
It is important to notice that this story comes at the end of Jesus’ presence in the temple; a presence that was highly emotional and disruptive. He had spoken boldly and judgmentally against the temple practices, and the leaders were set on putting him to death. Yet, just before he commends the widow for her gift and then leaves the temple courts, he makes one more important theological statement about the law givers of Israel.
He questions their theology by questioning the reading of scripture and their interpretation of who the Son of David is. Yet, more poignantly, he judges their ethics and offers a strong warning to his disciples about the teachers of the law. While these law givers might show much public piety in their teachings and in their interpretations of scripture, they devour widow’s houses. They act unjustly against widows, and we can assume others on the margins of the first century Jewish society.
Maybe this is why Jesus notices and draws attention to the widow who gives all she has. Not only is she a model of faithfulness and sacrificial giving, giving all she has to live on, which is what she has left after the rich and powerful have taken her other possessions, she does so without regard to how she has been treated by them or without regard for her own needs. She models the very actions of Jesus.
While the teachers of the law spout off this theological interpretation and that theological proposition, and while they create laws by which people must demonstrate their faithfulness, they act in direct opposition to the purposes of God by not acting justly towards others.
What a contrast of characters! Those thought to be so theologically astute and spiritually pious before the public are actually facing the judgment of God, while the woman who is not noticed by anyone except that she brings so very little to give, is actually the true model of discipleship.
Jesus points to this woman and tells his disciples that she is the model of faithfulness. Instead of listening to the preachers who preach theological propositions, pay attention to and follow the actions of this character who lives the kingdom of God of righteous and social justice.