Biblical Commentary
(Bible study)

Mark 12:38-44




Note where this story fits in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus has entered Jerusalem to the acclaim of the crowds (11:1-11). He has cleansed the temple (11:15-19) and concluded a series of disputes with Pharisees, Herodians, and scribes (11:27 – 12:37). He is teaching in the temple (12:35). Holy Week has begun. All that remains is this last opportunity to teach the disciples (chapter 13), the passion narrative (chapters 14-15), and the resurrection (chapter 16).

Our Gospel lesson consists of two complementary stories tied together by the mention of widows. The stories contrast the pride and greed of the scribes with the humility and generosity of a widow.


38In his teaching (Jesus) said to them, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk in long robes (Greek: stolais), and to get greetings in the marketplaces, 39and the best seats in the synagogues, and the best places at feasts: 40those who devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. These will receive greater condemnation.”

“In his teaching” (v. 38a). Jesus is speaking to a large crowd in the temple (v. 37). The scribes are the official teachers, but Jesus teaches people the truth about these teachers.

“Beware of the scribes” (v. 38b; see also Mark 8:15; Matthew 23). Jesus points to men entrusted with religious leadership who have turned their positions of trust into selfish sinecures (jobs that require little work but pay well). They focus on what they can get rather than what they can give. Their long robes, expensive and impractical for manual labor, identify them as professionals. The word, stolais, suggests a festive garment — dressing up (France, 490). The scribes relish the public honors that accompany their positions. In the marketplace, people rise respectfully when they approach. In the synagogue, scribes sit in seats of honor on the dais facing the congregation — seeing, but more importantly, being seen.

These are temptations for every age. Who does not like red carpet treatment? Who does not enjoy wearing finely tailored clothes? Who does not enjoy finding a mint on one’s pillow? Who does not enjoy being addressed by honorific title? All of these can be innocent or corrosive, depending on how they affect our relationships.

We should not assume that all scribes are guilty. Jesus just had a conversation with a scribe whom he pronounced to be not far from the kingdom (12:34). People who hold honored positions often serve honorably, but dishonorable people also seek such positions (Craddock, 465)

Jesus taught the disciples, “If any man wants to be first, he shall be last of all, and servant of all” (9:35; see also 10:31, 43-44). He taught, “For the Son of Man also came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (10:45). His life contrasts dramatically with the scribes whom he is criticizing. Unlike them, Jesus dresses modestly and serves the needs of humble people along the way. He warned a would-be follower, “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20).

“those who devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers” (v. 40a). Widows are especially vulnerable in a patriarchal society. Scribes act both as lawyers and theologians, assisting people with financial as well as spiritual affairs. In some cases, they actually manage people’s money for them (Lane, 441). While scribes are not permitted to charge for their services, nothing prohibits them from soliciting contributions for their personal support. Their long prayers give them a reputation for piety, which makes it easy for them to take advantage of unsophisticated people.

Josephus reports shocking behavior on the part of some religious leaders, some of whom used henchmen to extort funds from subordinate priests. He also reports that, in 66 A.D., rebels burned the high priest’s house, in part, to destroy records of debt (Evans, 284).

“These will receive greater condemnation” (v. 40b). Their guilt is multiplied by their position of trust. When they fail as stewards, God will hold them accountable. In another context, Jesus said, “To whomever much is given, of him will much be required; and to whom much was entrusted, of him more will be asked” (Luke 12:48b).

These same sins were probably beginning to emerge in the church of Mark’s time. Some church leaders are always more concerned with personal privilege than with faithful service.

Christians are always caught on the horns of a dilemma. When do beautiful buildings and expensive vestments stop glorifying God and start glorifying clergy and congregation? That is not a matter that can be judged by the cost of the buildings or vestments, but is a secret hidden within our hearts—but God knows our hearts!

In considering the preaching possibilities of this text, we need to remember that stewardship over the lives of vulnerable people is an issue, not only for synagogues and churches, but for everyone:

• Business executives are tempted to treat customers and employees as cogs in the moneymaking machine.

• Government officials are tempted to sell policy and privilege for campaign contributions or personal favors.

• Military leaders are tempted to put personal promotions above the welfare of subordinates.

• Teachers are tempted to put salaries and work conditions above students.

• Mechanics are tempted to recommend unneeded repairs.

• It is not necessary to be rich or powerful to victimize vulnerable people, and it is not only people at the bottom who are vulnerable. An embezzler victimizes his/her employer. A person who falsely accuses a supervisor of discrimination or sexual harassment becomes the harasser. In those situations, the employer or supervisor can be vulnerable—ruinously vulnerable—just as a widow is vulnerable.

It is possible for nearly any of us to injure vulnerable people. Of those who do so, Jesus says, “These will receive greater condemnation” (v. 40).


41Jesus sat down opposite the treasury, and saw how the multitude cast money into the treasury. Many who were rich cast in much. 42A poor widow came, and she cast in two small brass coins (Greek: lepta kodrantes), which equal a quadrans coin.

43He called his disciples to himself, and said to them, Most certainly I tell you, this poor widow gave more than all those who are giving into the treasury, 44for they all gave out of their abundance, but she, out of her poverty, gave all that she had to live on.”

“Jesus sat down opposite the treasury, and saw how the multitude cast money into the treasury”(v. 41a). In the Women’s Court, along the wall, are thirteen large, metal, trumpet-shaped receptacles to receive offerings for various purposes. People who might not donate out of a spirit of generosity are tempted to do so to be noticed by other people.

“Many who were rich cast in much” (v. 41b). The receptacles sit in plain view, and their clinking and clanking advertise the size of individual offerings. The donor is tempted to consider the clink/clank value of his/her offerings. Would a few loud clanks be most impressive—or a prolonged shower of smaller clinks? Perhaps, like a fireworks display, the best show would be a number of small clinks followed by a rousing finale of several great clanks.

The use of checks, paper money, and offering envelopes has removed this particular temptation from church offerings today, but temptation remains in other venues. Many substantial donations are given, at least in part, for their public relations value. Jesus says that such donors have already received their reward (Matthew 6:1-2).

“A poor widow came, and she cast in two small brass coins (Greek: lepta kodrantes—tiny coins worth very little), which equal a quadrans coin” (v. 42). Lepta are small coins, but hardly as worthless as a present-day penny. Each lepta would be worth about ten percent of a worker’s hourly wage—perhaps the equivalent of a dollar or two in today’s currency (if you live outside the U.S., use prevailing wages to calculate the value in local currency). They are too small to sustain the woman for long, but large enough to matter—two lepta would buy a modest meal. Small coins, they hardly make a sound as she drops them into the metal receptacles. Only Jesus notices the two small clinks and understands their significance.

“He called his disciples to himself, and said to them” (v. 43a)—this familiar formula announces an important teaching. “Most certainly I tell you, this poor widow gave more than all those who are giving into the treasury, for they all gave out of their abundance, but she, out of her poverty, gave all that she had to live on” (v. 43b-44). Jesus does not condemn the large gifts of wealthy people, but says that this woman’s offering is even larger. He bases his calculation, not on what she gives, but on what she has left. He knows how tempting it would be for her to think, “This little bit won’t matter, so I will let the rich people fill the coffers.”Jesus knows how much easier it would be for the widow to give one coin—or none—rather than both coins.

This widow’s approach was different from that of rich people. Wealthy people calculate percentages and allow the budget to dictate their giving. They are good at getting something in return, and factor that into their benevolence. In some instances, the public-relations value will return more to the donor than the gift cost. That’s just good stewardship. No reason to feel bad about helping a good cause—while getting a solid return on the investment.

But there was nothing calculating about this widow’s gift of two small coins. She didn’t have one moment of indecision. She didn’t shift from one foot to the other while considering first this coin and then that one. She didn’t calculate percentages. She didn’t check her budget. She didn’t ask what she would get in return. She had only two coins, and she cast them both into the treasury—probably feeling bad that she couldn’t give more. While the rich men “gave out of their abundance, (the widow), out of her poverty, gave all that she had to live on” (v. 44).

In recent years, several scholars have suggested that Jesus is lamenting this woman’s contribution rather than praising it. They note that Jesus puts human need above religiosity, condemns the scribes for their avarice (vv. 38-40), and foretells the destruction of the temple (13:1-8). They conclude that Jesus is distressed at this poor woman’s sacrifice in behalf of undeserving religious leaders and a doomed temple.

However, Jesus’ words in verses 43-44 are clearly words of praise rather than lament. While he might be inwardly dismayed at the prospect of religious leaders misusing this woman’s offering, he admires her faith in God and her sacrificial gift. Her gift reminds us of the widow of Zarephath, who gave the last of her food to the prophet Elijah, and who was rewarded by God with a jar of meal that was not emptied and a jug of oil that did not fail (1 Kings 17:8-16).

“for they all gave out of their abundance, but she, out of her poverty, gave all that she had to live on” (v. 44). Jesus measures the widow’s gift, based not on the amount that she gave, but on the amount that she kept back for her own use—nothing.

In chapter 9, the disciples argued among themselves about who was greatest (9:33-37). In chapter 10, James and John requested positions of greatness in Jesus’ kingdom (10:35-45). Now, in chapter 12, Jesus shows them the meaning of true greatness. This widow is the great one in their midst.

This is not an example story in the sense that Jesus tells us to go and do likewise. He does not demand that we drop every last penny in the offering tray. However, we should listen carefully to ascertain Christ’s specific call to us with regard to stewardship. It is clearly not satisfactory to give God a bit of what is left over after we have paid the bills. Christ expects us to put God first, not last. A tithe is the clearest Biblical standard for stewardship — and God calls particular people to give much more. But, most importantly, we are to do our giving quietly, without fanfare.

Soon Mark will tell the story of the woman who anoints Jesus’ head with precious ointment (14:3-9). Jesus will defend her prodigal giving. He will link the anointing with his coming death and will give the generous woman his blessing (14:8-9).

While Jesus does not say that people will remember this widow forever, her story is being told all across the world today. Her example will bless people until the end of time. Her two small coins show that (1) even the poor can honor God with their gifts and (2) God judges the offering, not by the size of the gift, but by the person’s heart.

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.


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Copyright 2015, Richard Niell Donovan