Two widows, true to type

November 2, 2009

For most of canonical history, Mark's Gospel has been considered an ugly
duckling and its author a clumsy yokel. It can hardly be a coincidence
that this Gospel was recognized as a swan and its author newly
discovered as a literary genius after the development of sophisticated
cinematic technique prepared us to read it better. Only then could
scholars recognize ancient textual equivalents to contemporary
filmmaking strategies.

Preachers of this Gospel would do well to
imagine themselves directing it: what is the equivalent in Mark's text
of the camera's unswerving focus on the glass of milk being carried up
the stairs in Hitchcock's Suspicion?

today's Gospel passage, the camera focuses first on Jesus, who is
warning his disciples about the scribes "who devour widows' houses" and
"say long prayers" as they do it. As we are mentally digesting this
warning, our view is enlarged to a full panorama of the temple court and
its treasury. The scene is one of bustling activity: people moving back
and forth, many rich people putting large amounts of money into the
temple treasury.

The camera pulls back to focus on Jesus as he sits (the traditional posture for teaching) opposite
(one of Mark's loaded prepositions) the temple treasury. Jesus is
opposed to the temple authorities, especially the scribes whose
injustice to widows he has just exposed.

As if on cue, a widow
appears in the midst of the crowd. We would not have noticed her in the
commotion, except that Jesus points verbally at her simple gesture. The
camera zooms in for a close-up shot: she puts in only two small copper
coins—a penny. Why does Jesus single her out for attention?

As we
wonder, along with the disciples, the camera catches her disappearing
into the crowd again: we saw her only for a few seconds. Now the camera
closes in on Jesus' face as he tells us that "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." The camera pulls back
and the screen fades to black as Jesus' words sink in.

The Greek
word behind "all she had to live on" is ambiguous. It can mean "her
whole living," as in the story of the widow of Zarephath who fed Elijah,
the man of God, from the little she and her son had left to live on.
She trusted in God's faithfulness and in the word of the Lord spoken by
the prophet. The same word—"bios," from which we get "biology"—can also
mean "life": this widow, at the mercy of unjust scribes in the temple,
is nevertheless offering to God, through the temple, "her whole life."

recent commentaries fault the widow for colluding with unjust and
exploitative economic structures and fault Mark for having Jesus endorse
her behavior. In their eagerness to provide a political reading, they
may be missing a theological one: the widow is a type of Jesus Christ
who similarly chooses to give "his whole life" in the face of those
unjust structures that destroy it.

For preachers so inclined, all
four lessons read in concert invite a typological reading of the death,
resurrection and second coming of Jesus Christ. The widow of Zarephath
approaches the death of her son and herself by trusting God, who proves
faithful. Ahab and Jezebel, who crush the poor (e.g., Naboth), reap
drought as promised, but God "executes justice for the oppressed,"
"gives food to the hungry" and "upholds the orphan and widow" (Psalm
146). God's word, like the jar of meal and the jug of oil, does not
fail. These two lessons point ahead to the faithful death of Jesus and
God's faithfulness in raising him from the dead.

Mark and Hebrews
point backwards to the cross: Mark's widow is a parable of Jesus' own
death; Hebrews complements that local human story by describing the
cosmic significance of the atonement. Hebrews also points ahead: Christ
will appear a second time to save those who are eagerly awaiting him. We
are challenged to trust God's faithfulness as much as these two widows,
the psalmist, Mark, Hebrews and our Savior did. Will we let ourselves
be "typecast" in Mark's movie?