by Father Mike Stubbs
At the doorway of the parish church that I attended as a young boy, there was a poor box attached to the wall.
As we passed by, we were encouraged to deposit our loose change there. The money collected would then be given to the poor; hence the name, poor box.
The poor widow in Sunday’s Gospel reading, Mk 12:38-44, makes her contribution in a similar device. It stood in the courtyard of the temple in Jerusalem. There were 13 such devices for receiving the offerings of the faithful. Because of the fluted shape of their mouths, they were called trumpets. Jesus had been watching the crowd coming forward with their donations when he noticed the widow putting in her two small coins.
The widow’s and the crowd’s contributions went toward the maintenance of the Jerusalem temple. It was a vast enterprise, requiring a huge amount of money to operate. It was definitely the largest business in Jerusalem, comparable to the federal government in our country. The budget had to support the thousands of priests and Levites who served in the Temple. It had to pay for the wood and the incense continually offered there in sacrifice.
There were some donors to the Temple who clearly stood out from the others — for example, Herod the Great. He subsidized the rebuilding of the Temple. That construction project lasted for 82 years. It was still going on at the time of Jesus. (For example, John’s Gospel (2:20) tells us: “The Jews said, ‘This temple has been under construction for 46 years, and you will raise it up in three days?’”) Throughout construction, worship continued uninterrupted.
An enormous army of laborers — 10,000 — was needed for this project, considered one of the wonders of the ancient world. Herod financed the rebuilding of the Temple in order to restore his tarnished reputation among the Jews. And it worked.
The amount of money that Herod the Great spent easily overshadowed the two small coins that the widow offered. And yet, Jesus draws attention to her contribution: “This poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.”
Is Jesus praising the widow for her generosity? Or is Jesus instead criticizing the Temple system for taking advantage of her generosity? Only a few verses earlier in the Gospel, Jesus attacks religious leaders who prey upon unsuspecting widows: “They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext recite lengthy prayers.”
Both are possibilities. And perhaps there is no need to choose between the two. But maybe there is a third possibility. Jesus is holding up the widow to his disciples as an example of total commitment.
Jesus is calling on them to give themselves completely to his mission: “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Mk 10:21). Jesus is pointing to the widow as an example of someone who has given herself totally to God.