Palm/Passion Sunday kicks off Holy Week every year but mostly we don’t ponder much about what was going on with Jesus until we get to the big days of the week: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday. But Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday are not days when we mark anything in particular. As I pondered this week’s blog, I wondered what was happening to Jesus two days after his entry into Jerusalem. So I thought I’d go to Mark’s Gospel and let his chronology fill in the details.
Near as we can tell from Mark, Jesus entered Jerusalem on what we now celebrate on Palm/Passion Sunday but did not stay long–by evening he had exited the city. He came back the next day, cursing a fig tree on his way in (on account of its having no fruit even though no fig tree was in season just then) before creating a ruckus at the Temple. As the dust settled from that dramatic event, Jesus left the city yet again.
Then comes what we could call the Tuesday of that week, and what a day it was. First the disciples notice that the ill-fated fig tree had indeed withered, and Jesus uses the occasion to talk about having strong faith. Next, Jesus returns to the Temple courts only to be assailed by the religious authorities who are all-but sputtering their dismay at Jesus’ recent actions. “Who told you that you could do ANY of this!?” they fairly scream at Jesus. Jesus isn’t playing their game but goes on to tell a damning parable against these same religious leaders (The Parable of the Tenants). That ticks those folks off even more so they go away, only to swing back soon enough to test Jesus with several tricky questions about taxes and marriage and the greatest commandment. Soon Jesus also gives a long discourse on the end of the age, and the day ends with Jesus’ stern admonition to “Watch!” because no one will know when the end will come.
That’s quite a Tuesday!
But plopped into the middle of all that busy conversation and teaching and bickering is the tiny vignette of the widow putting two small copper coins into the Temple coffers. Others, Mark tells us in Mark 12:41, were throwing in more lavish sums but the widow gives what added up to a fraction of a penny. Jesus singles her out for this action, as we all know, saying that since she gave all she had to live on, her offering was actually more valuable than those who gave just a fraction of their larger wealth.
Usually we see this story as a kind of inspirational tale, a “go and do likewise” moment as Jesus subtly encourages us to be as self-giving and generous as she was.
But what if that is not what this story really means?
The Bible rarely tells us how Jesus said anything–we don’t get a lot of adverbs like “he said gravely” or “he replied gleefully.” So how did Jesus say the line in Mark 12:44? “They gave out of their wealth but she, out of her poverty, put in everything–all she had to live on.” Some commentators suggest that Jesus said these words in a choked-up tone a voice and with a combination of sorrow and righteous anger. Rather than holding this dear widow up as a role model, Jesus was angry that she had been made to feel like she had to give all she had to live on. Instead of ministering to this woman, the Temple was milking her dry. That whole Tuesday had been shot through with nothing but snarky comments from Temple leaders. Corruption and mendacity are in the air. Jesus had already cleared the Temple courts the day before precisely to make room for the lowly, the disenfranchised, the sinners and others with whom Jesus had spent most of his time in recent years (but for whom the holier-than-thou Pharisees and others had neither time nor interest).
When Jesus sees this dear soul giving up the only shot she had that week at buying even a few morsels of bread, he doesn’t see just some shining example of sacrificial giving but an example of what happens when those charged to take care of God’s people become so self-absorbed with their own perfect piety that they have scant time to reach out with God’s love to the needy and the marginalized.
It’s an old story. We still pay attention more to those who can do something for us than those for whom we could do something. We still sidle up to the wealthy, to those who have influence, to those we want to take a selfie with so we can post it on Facebook to tell our friends “Look who I got to meet!” Meanwhile those who have so little in the first place get ignored. What little they have gets gobbled up one way or another by the rest of society. And sometimes those who are already poor end up being also the most generous. It’s something of a refrain in John Steinbeck’s classic novel The Grapes of Wrath. Over and again the impoverished Joad family gets taken advantage of by the government or by the wealthy. The only real help they ever get comes from fellow Oakies who have almost nothing to begin with. That’s why a character like Ma Joad says over and over, “Iff’in you need sumpin, go to the poor–they will always give quicker than the rich.”
It shouldn’t be that way. These are cycles of poverty and entitlement, of honoring the wrong people while ignoring the right people, that go on and on but that must end if we are all to participate in the full flourishing of life in this creation as God intended in the beginning. God created a cosmos of fruitful fecundity, of overwhelming abundance, of outrageous generosity. But ever since that good beginning, human sin has slid things the other way.
Maybe that is why on that Tuesday of Holy Week when Jesus observed a woman who could not afford to give her life away–but who was forced to do so anyway–it only steeled his own holy resolve to do something about this. And indeed, before that week was over, Jesus would give his all–everything that counted as his life–in order to at long last turn this cosmos from the darkness of injustice and inequity back to the light of a creation of flourishing and delight for all.
The Tuesday of Holy Week doesn’t have Good Friday’s drama. But through a lone widow, Tuesday contains a whole lot of Good Friday’s purpose after all.