With these final six verses in Mark 12, Jesus’ public teaching ministry, as recorded by Mark, comes to an end. Though it would be easy to gloss over these pericopes, if we do, we miss the point that Jesus had been emphasising throughout his training of the Twelve: The values of the kingdom are radically different from the values of the world, even the religious world.
A Contrast of Values
Jesus had been teaching his disciples the inverse values of the kingdom of God: The first will be last and the last will be first; the one who is chief among you must be your servant; the greatest will be the least, the least will be the greatest; you must lose your life to save it; etc. The disciples were just not getting it. But, in the final scene of the close of Jesus’s public ministry, he pointed to an unmistakeable example of all he had been saying.
Remember Mark’s purpose: He wanted his readers to follow Jesus (1:17). In this fast-paced Gospel, Mark keeps returning to the theme of the cost of being a disciple of Jesus. His Roman readers—Christians facing difficulties as they followed Jesus—needed to be reminded of the cost of discipleship, yet also of the crown that follows.
Jesus was soon to be betrayed, arrested, mistreated and (mis)tried. His teaching in the temple had upped the ante and stoked the fires of opposition. This final session in the temple makes this all the more clear. He left the temple with a bang as he eviscerated the religiously venerated religious experts: the scribes (vv. 38–40).
But before departing the temple, Jesus commended a very poor widow, whose behaviour displayed the essence of what he had been teaching his disciples for the past three years.
In contrast to the self-satisfied, self-exalting, self-enriching, self-centred scribes, this woman displayed selfless sacrifice out of devotion to God. She gave what many would say was a small offering, but in fact it was a huge gift, for she gave her all. Her two small coins displayed a large heart and an even greater faith.
She exemplified true discipleship. In giving her two-cents’ worth she taught us what God expects of those who truly know and worship him. They give their all, because they trust him for all.
The pericope about this widow will be our main focus, but to more fully appreciate its beauty, we need to see it contrasted against the dark backdrop of vv. 38–40. Like a diamond on black felt, the widow’s example shines luminously brilliant against the backdrop of these scandalous scribes.
We will study this passage under two important headings: beware the scribes (vv. 38–40) and behold the saint (vv. 41–44).
Beware the Scribes
In vv. 38–40, Jesus cautioned his listeners, and cautions us, against being like the scribes.
And in his teaching he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretence make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
Faithful shepherding, as exemplified by Jesus, involves instructing the sheep to both beware and to behold. We see the first here.
Jesus was concerned to equip his disciples to be discerning. And so, “in his teaching,” he exhorted them, along with the crowd of would-be disciples, to be beware of those who distort the worship of God.
“Beware” translates a word that refers to seeing: to see or to watch carefully or to watch. It is sometimes translated as “pay attention” or “take heed” or (4:24) or “be on your guard” (13:5, 9, 23, 33). Clearly, it’s a word of warning. And note that this warning was in the context of a place of worship. Jesus was warning that a religious place is not always a safeplace.
Sometimes, the most spiritually dangerous place to be is at a place of worship. Our current lockdown may be a means of protecting people from something far more deadly than a biological virus!
Who were the scribes? The name derives from a word meaning “the writings.” Scribes were of the tribe of Levi, who were the professional doctors of the law. They were stewards of the Old Testament. It was actually a humble position and not one where you would expect a lot of riches. Historically, scribes lived off the freewill offerings of the people, which would not normally result in a hefty bank balance.
It was a vocation to be respected, but not one to be pursued for rank, reputation, or riches. The office of the scribe was not biblically prescribed but came about by necessity. Since the people of Israel were to be people of the law, the vocation of the scribes was always important. It therefore became an office out of logical necessity.
The office seemed to grow in prominence during the Babylonian exile. At that time, it was particularly important for God’s scattered people to have the word of God. It was also vital to maintain the documented history of their nation, which is why a scribe by the name of Ezra compiled the Chronicles. (We know them as 1 and 2 Chronicles. The Jewish canon combined them as one.)
Speaking of Ezra, he serves as an example of the kind of scribe with whom the Lord was pleased (see Ezra 7:1–10; Nehemiah 8:1ff). He had a heart that was devoted to God, to his word, and to the welfare of his people. He selflesslyserved both God and his church when he volunteered to take a long and arduous journey to Babylonia to help the people in rebuilding the temple and the city. When he got there, he taught God’s people the unadulterated word of God. The result was that “the joy of the LORD became their strength” (Nehemiah 8:10) and they laboured together in that strength to restore the city of God.
Ezra was a faithful shepherd of God’s people. He studied God’s word, sought to teach it to God’s people, and, most importantly, committed himself to do it (Ezra 7:10). God was pleased with this scribe, for we are told that “the good hand of God was upon him” (7:9).
But obviously a downgrade occurred between those days and the days of Jesus’ ministry. By that time, the scribes were largely ignorant of the word of God (see Mark 12:35–37). In fact, they disobeyed and often distorted his word. Though there were exceptions (Mark 12:28–34), the scribes were largely faithless shepherds who had abandoned the sheep, who were now scattered and spiritually shattered. How did this come about?
I can’t say for sure, but from what I know of subsequent church history, pride likely crept in. Knowledge puffs up (1 Corinthians 8:1). They became proud lovers of praise and position.
The scribes, being so close to the actual manuscripts of the old covenant, lost sight of God and his grace—the grace and the God to whom these Scriptures pointed! They took for granted what they should have been humbled by. They lived their lives in front of the mirror of God’s word and yet they failed to look closely, failed to correct what the mirror reflected, and so became hearers only. They forgot what kind of persons they really were: sinners who needed a sovereign Saviour. Therefore they went away self-satisfied, further entrenched in their sin (James 1:22–24) and, in their self-righteousness, they now pursued rank, reputation, and riches.
Let me pause and make an important application, particularly but not exclusively to those who minister God’s word. Beware that you don’t miss the wood for the trees. That is, don’t miss God in God’s word (see Psalm 119:18).
Beware that you don’t love to merely teach the Bible. I have often admonished young pastors that our passion must never be to merely teach God’s word but rather to teach God’s word to his people. Teaching truth is one thing; teaching people truth is quite another. The latter is our calling. Those who merely love to teach truth do a lot of damage to God’s people. The Internet is filled with “discernment” ministries who boast of their commitment to the truth and only the truth of God’s Word. Sadly, it becomes very clear, as you read their mean-spirited, arrogant, and sometimes even crass language, that the truth has never firmly grasped them and brought them to their knees. There is far more to the Christian life than merely being correct, as important as that is. Being Christlike is the issue. We should never separate these. These goals are not at odds with one another. They are to feed each other. Nevertheless what is an ought is not always caught. The scribes certainly did not catch this. Ministers of God’s word, we must!
Beware of your disposition as you function in your position. The scribes miserably failed here. I don’t suppose there is a more perverse creature than an arrogant preacher of the gospel. And perhaps none more dangerous. This is why Jesus reserved his most severe condemnation of them.
As we consider what the New Testament reveals of the scribes, we can say a few things about them. Once again, these are broad generalisations of who the scribes were and are by no mean intended to be a condemnation of every scribe in the New Testament era.
By the time Jesus walked the Palestinian roads and attended the Jewish synagogues, the scribes had become a dangerous group, imperilling the spiritual welfare of God’s people. In a word, they were hypocrites (see 7:5–7). In this passage, we might expand that criticism to say that they were rank hypocrites.
As Jesus warned the crowd about the scribes, the scribes were also a part of the audience. How his words must have stung! Jesus was fearless, not because he was a tough macho man, but because of this deep devotion to this Father and to his Father’s flock. Jesus couldn’t stomach the mistreatment of the sheep and the simultaneous misrepresentation of his Father.
Jesus highlighted their self-centred obsession with rank, reputation, and riches by several revelations/denunciations of their character.
They were obsessed with worldly distinctions. This is revealed in the words “who like to walk around in long robes.” This was a special robe of white linen that went from the shoulders to the feet. Some say it was a prayer shawl. It was typically worn by royalty and those of social rank, whether due to wealth or political position.
While commoners wore coloured fabric, this long white robe was reserved for a special class. The scribes had a mind disposed to promoting themselves, and one way they did this was by how they dressed.
The matter of wearing vestments was a huge battle waged by the Christian Reformers throughout history. Luther, and many others, equated the elaborate clothing worn by the clergy of their day with this critique by Jesus here.
Distinguished clothing can create an unhelpful distance between people. This, of course, sometimes is appropriate. A bride and groom do well to stand out at a wedding. Military and policing personnel are rightly distinguished by their uniforms. A president will like be better received during a presidential speech if he wears a suit and tie rather than a swimsuit. But when it comes to serving God’s people, why would we think that distance is a good thing?
I’ve never understood churches that have reserved parking for their pastors. Why should the minister of God’s people be treated as a VIP? I am personally uncomfortable with titles for pastors such as “Pastor,” “Reverend,” and “Doctor.” I don’t look down on those who use those terms, but if I don’t refer to my plumber as Plumber Jeff or my electrician as Electrician Anthony, why should I expect to be referred to as Pastor Doug. Pastor is my gifting and ministry as a member of the church, but my name is Doug.
Along with the above, the scribes were also obsessed with worldly deference. This is clear by the denunciation, “and like greetings in the marketplaces.” The words used here refer to formal greetings where the concept of authority was front and centre. (Luke 1:29; 1 Corinthians 16:21; etc.).
It seems that the scribes would position themselves publicly so that they would receive these special greetings. It is well known that “by the majority of the people the scribes were venerated with unbounded respect and awe. Their words were considered to possess sovereign authority. When a scribe passed by on the street or in the bazaar people rose respectfully. Only tradesman at their work were exempted from this display of deference” (Lane).
In short, the scribes had a mind bent on being the centre of attention. O Christian—O minister of the gospel—stop it!
Beware the sinful quest to be at the centre. Beware of thinking that your opinion always matters. Beware of thinking that you always have to speak. Beware of always have to give your two-cents’ worth—unless, of course, you are giving it like the widow gave hers.
Think accurately about yourself. There are probably some things in which you are not an expert. Stay in your lane!
The next statement also speaks of their desire for deference: “and have the best seats in the synagogue.”
The synagogue layout included benches up front, with a particular seat in front of the Torah. The person sitting there faced the congregation. He was literally between the people and the word of God. That might be a good thing, if the person sitting there is guarding the truth of God’s word. Unfortunately, the scribes gave little thought to God’s instruction. Rather, they wanted to be the centre of attention. When people came to church, to use our expression, the scribe was prominent. Brothers and sisters, those who minister God’s word to his people are not the centre of attraction. When they become this, trouble is brewing.
A visitor to our church some time ago commented to me afterwards that he was surprised I was not seated on the stage the entire service. He was accustomed to seeing that, and found it strange to see me sitting with the congregation during the announcements, call to worship, singing, etc. How sad it is that that should be thought strange. I am, after all, first and foremost a member of the church.
We live in an age of celebrity Christianity. While many—most?—of these brothers and sisters are probably not pursuing the celebrity status they have, we all do well to ask whether our ministry is for the applause of men or the pleasure of God.
Their obsession with worldly deference was further highlighted by their love for “the places of honour at feasts.” Status was on their mind. They were conscious of class. Sadly, this did not bother their conscience. Apparently, they ignored God’s word so often that their conscience became seared and they became as class conscious as everyone else. They loved it that they were considered a part of the prominent, favoured, and admired class.
Remember that we are not talking about politicians, business leaders, other kinds of professionals. No, we are talking about shepherds! Do you see the perversity of this? The shepherds of God’s people had become like the world. And, worse, they either didn’t notice or didn’t care. Probably both.
Beware when your Christianity becomes enculturated. Beware of those in the church who are enculturated and yet who want to lead you to God. They won’t.
A worldly desire for riches fuelled their despicable conduct of “devour[ing] widows’ houses.”
The word translate “devour” means just that. Think of a hungry teenager at mealtime. The scribes “ate up” the possessions of widows. No doubt, some of the widows were among the wealthy and the scribes milked them out of much of what they had. There was a contemporary account of a scribe who finagled the law to get part of the estate a wealthy woman by the name of Fulvia.
But many widows were destitute, like the one we will soon meet. The scribes unscrupulously took advantage of them and “ate up” all they had “in the name of God.” Think Prophet Joshua, Pastor Chris, Benny Hinn, Shepherd/Prophet Bushiri, etc.
Jesus concluded this denunciation with the words “and for a pretence make long prayers,” highlighting their religious hypocrisy. Perhaps, while everyone’s eyes were closed, they were robbing them blind. They sought to mask the corruption of their heart and the heinousness of their motives with religious ritual. They prayed but were not praying to Yahweh.
I read an account recently of a person who attended a liberal church. This individual said of the prayer of the unbelieving pastor that it was “perhaps the finest prayer ever delivered to a New York congregation.”
The scribes had great opportunity, great responsibility, great accountability, and therefore great condemnation for their dereliction of duty (cf. James 3:1; see Luke 12:48b).
The word “condemnation” means exactly what it says. It means to receive a damning verdict. The scribes, having not only failed in their stewardship, but having done so corruptly, would face severe judgment. They might enjoy rank, reputation, and riches now, but they would face the wrath of God forever.
Remember, Jesus’ disciples, minus Judas Iscariot, will be the leaders of the new covenant church. In fact, if you read ahead in the Bible you find that the new Jerusalem, which is the new covenant church, has twelve foundations (stones) named after the apostles (Revelation 21:14ff). Paul writes that the church is built upon “the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus being the Chief Cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:20).
Jesus had been driving home what their leadership was to look like—and it was not to look like that of the scribes! Those today who are like the self-serving scribes are dangerous; true disciples of Jesus need to beware.
The apostle Paul warns us to be beware of the doctrine of demons (1 Timothy 4:1), that is, false teachings that come from demons delivered by flesh and blood people. The doctrines may vary but the demonic motive (whether the messenger is aware or not) is to dishonour God and to deceive his people.
A major deception is when it comes to the biblical definition, description, and demands of biblical discipleship. If we go wrong here, we go wrong everywhere.
It is so important that the church be clear concerning the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. A corollary to this clarity is what it means to be a true follower of the Lord Jesus. The scribes of Jesus’ day, largely, had no correct understanding of what it meant to be a loyal follower of Yahweh the King. It was for this reason that they opposed Jesus and his teaching, and it was for this reason that they lived like religious hucksters. Jesus warned his disciples and would-be-disciples to turn away from these and to not imitate them. He warned those who would listen not to be influenced by them and not to imitate them.
The scribes were self-serving, self-exalting, self-interested, and self-congratulatory blind leaders of the blind. Jesus expected the “scribes” of his church to be God-serving, God-exalting, God-interested, God-celebrating servants of God’s people. The final section of this chapter provides an example of such a disciple.
Behold the Widow
In the second major portion of our text, the Lord tells us to behold the widow as an example to emulate:
And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
While Jesus wanted the disciples and would-be followers to beware of the scribes, he wanted them to behold this saint. Whereas the scribes were keen to take two cents from widows, this widow was willing to give her two cents to the Lord. It was all she had and it tells us all we need to know about the cost and the privilege of following Jesus. (She gave all she had to live on, and Jesus would soon give his life for her.)
Jesus was heading out of the temple. But before he did, he and his disciples stopped at the Court of Women. This was not exclusively for women but it was the furthest point a woman could go besides the place of sacrifice.
The Temple Treasury
In this area was the temple treasury where there were thirteen brass receptacles in the shape of trumpets for the various offerings. It was here that Jesus stopped and sat down, which, for a rabbi, was a position for giving instruction. He was going to teach them again, by object lesson, what it means to be his disciple. Whereas the scribes were a horrible example of those who follow God, a very poor widow served as a wonderful example. One day, we will meet her. The scribes had their reward in this life; hers will outlive her and will follow her to glory.
From Jesus’ vantage point, he could see people as they deposited their offerings in one of several shofar-shaped receptacles. He could both hear the offerings and see the offerers. As he watched, he noticed wealthy worshippers giving large sums. But this did not capture his attention as much as that of a poor widow.
Some offerings were loud, and he didn’t pay a lot of attention to those. He did pay attention to one that made little noise. He paid a lot of attention, because his Father did.
The word “widow” connotes deficiency—not only the deficiency of, in most cases, living alone but also the deficiency of being without a means of income. This was not always the case, but it was generally. In this case we read the adjective “poor.” The word speaks of abject poverty. It literally means “to crouch” as would one who is begging.
This widow was in dire material straits. In fact, we are told that here “two small copper coins” comprised “everything she had.” Mark explains to his Roman readers that these two copper coins were only worth a penny. That’s the equivalent of a fraction of a day’s wages.
Further, it was probably a freewill offering. In other words, she didn’t have to give it but she chose to do so.
This, in itself, was worthy of Jesus’ notice, but the additional information tells us just how noteworthy: It was all she had. Literally, it was all her livelihood. This means that this was all the money she had to live on for the day. And, by the way, since she had two coins, she could have kept one of them. But she wouldn’t and didn’t. She gave it all. This is remarkable and Jesus draws the disciples’ attention to it.
The Call to Disciples(hip)
In v. 43 Jesus “called his disciples to him.” The terminology is significant. It is the same term used of Jesus’ initial call of the disciples (3:13), his subsequent re-calling and commissioning them for ministry (6:7), and when he called them to himself to re-state the terms of discipleship (10:42). Elsewhere in Mark, it is used predominantly when Jesus went to authoritatively instruct a group.
Again, the terminology indicates that Jesus had discipleship on his mind—that is, his expectations of those who will follow him.
Another indication of the enormity of this scene are his words, “Truly, I say to you.” These words occur thirteen other times in Mark. They indicate a firm, trustworthy, very serious word. I suppose a red-letter edition of the Bible would have these as very red!
In other words, this is a scene, and these are words, that the disciples must cherish and never forget. They would be key to their faithful discipleship. This is a scene that future disciples would need to know about as well. These two cents’ worth were invaluable.
Jesus told them that these two small copper coins, worth little to the world, were, in God’s estimation, a greater amount “than all those contributing to the offering box.” That makes no mathematical sense. In fact, Mark has already told us that “many rich people put in large sums.” But, of course, Jesus’ point was not mathematical, it was proportional, indicating that, because she gave “out of her poverty,” while the rich gave out their abundance, in the Lord’s eyes, she gave far more. The rich gave their spare change. She gave and had nothing to spare.
The rich could give to God and still not be dependent on God; the gave because she realised her dependence on God. She gave her all to the Lord realising the Lord was her all. Their giving was evidence of merely tipping whereas her giving was a beautiful picture of trusting.
It is wonderful to note that she was a living example of what Jesus taught earlier: She loved God with all she had, with all of her life. And since much of the freewill offerings went to meet needs of others, she was also loving her neighbour as herself (vv. 29–31).
Kent Hughes observes, “She was a rare flower in a desert of official devotion, and her beauty made his heart rejoice.” Apparently, she didn’t care what others thought of her. This was a very public offering. People could hear the small ding of two little copper coins going down the neck of the metal shofar. But God was her audience and Jesus was very well-pleased. The rich, with their abundant gifts, did not receive any special mention whereas she received eternally honourable mention.
How many people have come into the kingdom, and how much money has been invested, because of her example? Truly she gave more than all the others!
Soon Jesus would lay down his life, and he expected his follows to likewise lay down theirs (8:34–35; etc.). This widow exemplified this very thing. She offered up her life to God. Nothing less is required of those who will come to Jesus and follow him as Saviour and Lord.
It has been suggested by at least one and perhaps other commentators that this story is juxtaposed to the previous pericope to illustrate just how devouring the scribes were. That is, it has been suggested this widow only had two coins left after being milked by the scribes or that she had been manipulated by the scribes to give these coins when she should have kept them to feed herself. The words of Jesus, it seems to me, argue against the latter observation but there may be something to the first one. If so, we would learn from this that, even though this woman was disabused by the scribal scoundrels, nevertheless, she would not let that detour her worship of God. The spiritual abuse by others, as horrific as that was, would not become an excuse for the widow to not serve and worship God with total abandon.
What is your excuse?
Pay Attention, Inverted Values
Jesus draws the attention of the disciples, and he draws our attention, to the call and the cost of discipleship. If we will follow the Lord Jesus, then we must be willing to give it all.
There are many lessons being driven home here. One truth, as someone said to me this week, is that, in the Bible, the contradiction proves true. The first will be last and the last will be first. The one who will be chief among you must be your servant. The lowly will be exalted while the exalted will be brought low. Those who save their life will lose it while those who lose their life for Christ’s sake will find it.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus drove home the stark contrast between his kingdom and the kingdoms of this world. Not, as many erroneously assume, that his kingdom has nothing to do with this world, but rather that the principles and ethics of his kingdom are vastly different than those of the world’s kingdoms, including religious kingdoms. Everything about these two scenes points to the inverted values of the kingdom of God. As France comments, “It both commends the widow’s self-sacrificing generosity and turns upside down the normal human valuation of people.”
Fellow disciple of Jesus beware any form of Christianity that is merely a religious version of the world’s values: prestige; popularity; prominence; prosperity; etc. Beware spare-change Christianity and leftovers discipleship. Rather, behold the real thing: total abandon, unmoved by the response of others, trusting God with a sense of complete dependence.
This last observation is pertinent for our circumstances today. Brother and sister, perhaps God is removing our reserves so we will experience his provision. The widow apparently had no reserves and that, in some ways, made total abandon both more challenging and more sensible. That is, she had nothing to lose and everything to gain.
As we face uncertainty, we too should respond in greater dependence upon the Lord. I have no doubt that our discipleship is being put to the test. Will we pass?
You will be tempted at a time like this to stockpile and to cut back on your tithes. Rather, drop it in the shofar, knowing that Jesus is watching. We can be sure that what he sees, he will respond to.
At the end of the day, all of us only have two cents’ worth. Give it to Jesus and he will give you more than you could ever have imagined.
Non-Christian, perhaps you have known some religious hucksters, like these scribes. Perhaps they have misled or even harmed you in some way. Don’t judge Jesus by them. Don’t refuse to come to him unless you are willing to share in their condemnation. Like them, you have heard the truth and, like them, you are responsible to respond to the truth. Turn from your sin and trust Jesus Christ who died for your sins, who was buried, and who rose for your justification.
Yes, it will cost you. It will cost you your all. But it will never cost you what it cost Jesus. He refused to save his life so that he could save yours. If you choose to save your life, you will lose what could ultimately be saved! Come to Jesus and trust him now.