Mark 12:38-44 (NRSV)
Jesus Denounces the Scribes
38 As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
The Widow’s Offering
41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
A few months ago, our glorious leader and founder of this blog, Scott Evans, told me about how he brings more people into this conversation by getting students he works with at UCD engaged in the project. I was inspired to try pulling some of the pupils from Wilson’s in too. After two really interesting 40 minute conversations with two groups of 5thyear pupils (roughly 17 years old), I’m really glad I did! The pupils come from a variety of Christian and non-faith backgrounds and everyone’s input was really valuable! So read on to enjoy something a bit different from my usual posts!
In both classes the widow’s offering caused us to touch on a variety of topics, but the discussion with the first group focused mostly on the concept of “cost”. One pupil said the main message of the passage is that the important thing about an offering is its meaning to the one who is giving. Whatever time, effort or object is offered to God does not matter in itself, it’s what it costs you that matters to God. Another pupil added that the passage implies God is interested in what is coming from our hearts, not our pockets. I asked the class if they could remember a time when they really felt it in their hearts as they offered something to God, or to a good cause? Could they remember a time it really hurt them to give something away? Either what came to mind was too personal to share, or, like me, they also found it hard to think of a costly occasion. One person ventured to say that maybe rich people can’t truly give to God, at least not the way truly impoverished people can. That comment caused a little bit of a rumble in the room, but it did bring to my mind Jesus’ words that it would be easier for camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God. Wealth definitely impacts on our relationship with God, and it might be something to do with this idea of cost.
I explained that I am in the position where I can throw a few coins or a note on a collection plate for a good cause when I’m asked, but I couldn’t easily remember the last time something really hurt me to give away. As we continued to ponder this idea of costliness, a comment was made about having to sacrifice a Pot Noodle for the sake of a friend. That might not seem like a big sacrifice to most readers of this post, and we did laugh, but Pot Noodle is serious currency in a boarding school. It was a really useful point. There are times when it would cost us less to give a couple of euro away than to give away the last slice of a cake or the last biscuit in a packet. The extra snacks a boarder brings from home, or “tuck” as we call it, can be a lifeline on the days when the canteen serves up a meal you can’t stand, or on the days when things are a bit hard and only chocolate can help! If you are not near enough to a supermarket to replenish your stocks, the value of tuck rises dramatically. So perhaps this passage is about looking past the monetary value of the things in our lives and taking stock of the true value some has for us. Maybe it’s time to examine how often we let our giving to God and to neighbour really cost us something, whether that cost is financial, or a cost to our plans, our time, our intentions, our routine, our happiness or other non-monetary resources.
In the second class we discussed some similar themes, but our conversation really revolved around the idea of “intent”. How much does the intention behind our giving count? This came out of a point that a few pupils backed about how unfair it was to judge the wealthy people who gave a larger offering. Some of them may have had a deep respect and concern for the Temple. It may not have cost them in the same way as the two coins did the widow, but that doesn’t make their offering meaningless.
How much does the intention behind our actions matter? We noted in a court of law that people receive lesser punishments for manslaughter than for murder. If intention is taken into account, what kind of intention is righteous? We reflected on the difference between a deontological approach to ethics (where one’s duty determines the goodness of an action) and a teleological approach (where the desired end goal determines the goodness of an action). If the rich people honestly believed they were fulfilling their duty by paying the tithe that was prescribed by the Torah, would that intent not please God? If they believed they were contributing to maintaining worship at the Temple as prescribed by the Torah, would that intent not please God? What kind of duty or end goal did the widow have in mind as she dropped her two coins in the box? She certainly went well beyond her duty in supplying the require one tenth of her wealth. She can’t have imagined that her offering would go very far in the running of the Temple. A pupil said that perhaps her goal was to demonstrate a radical trust that God could provide for her needs? What was going through any of their minds and hearts on that day at the Temple? And what intents or goals do we have in mind when we make our offerings?
I could go on for much longer, such was the richness of our conversation, but space does not permit. I hope your thoughts have been stimulated as much as mine have been. My deepest gratitude to the 5thyear pupils of Wilson’s Hospital School for engaging with this passage and doing all the thinking for me this week!
Emma Rothwell works at Wilson’s Hospital School where she is the School Chaplain. She lives in a 250 year old cottage on campus, and probably cares too much about the tiny flower bed she made at the front of it. Emmas recently stepped down from the post of Diocesan Youth and Children's Officer for the Dioceses of Meath and Kildare. Before that, she was a secondary school teacher of Religious Education and English. She loves British panel show comedy, reading, thinking on really long walks, dancing at weddings and talking to you about things you really care about.