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Derek Caldwell

She gave this name to the LORD who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me.

Genesis 16:13

The sounds at the temple in Jerusalem could be quite clamorous. Not only would you have the urban hustle and bustle engulfing you, but the outer court of the temple had been turned into a marketplace itself, with the smells of animals and dust lingering in the air. And beyond that point, through the “Gate Beautiful,” the sound of coins dropping in “the Trumpets,” collection boxes for tithes and offerings. Roughly 2,000 years ago, a devout widow made her way to the temple, turned her Roman coins into temple coins (at a loss, thanks to the money changers), and went in to drop her two lepta, which literally means “thin one,” into a trumpet.

Mark’s gospel tells us that this was the widow’s whole net worth (see Mark 12:41-44). By my estimation, it would be about three US dollars today. In her world, she is worth three US dollars. Or she was. After her offering, her net worth was nil. No one saw her come, just as no one had seen her come many times before. History would not have remembered her or her sacrifice of all earthly wealth to the temple. This wasn’t a good time in history to be a widow, not that any time ever has been. That she is so poor may suggest that she has no children. She has no safety net. She is anonymous, unseen.

Jesus sees

At this point in Mark, Jesus is known at the temple. He had just arrived in Jerusalem with a king’s welcome. The day before the widow arrived at the temple, He had done some teaching there that must have been quite the scene, for He started chasing people out of the temple who had been turning it into a marketplace. Chief priests and teachers of the Law wasted no time in plotting His death. Can you imagine the shock on Jesus’s disciples’ faces when they realized that on this particular morning they would be returning to the temple? And not only that, but once there He would preach in the midst of those who sought to kill him? And this preaching, the disciples would find out, included some very unsubtle jabs like

Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.[1]

But on that day, irrespective of the disciples’ qualms, Jesus went to the temple. Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”[2] And there stood the grandeur of God, in human flesh, centered in a precise time and space, covered in sweat, gazing at a beautiful example of His own creation: the selfless heart of an unseen widow. She couldn’t have been more unlike the very seen, and very selfish chief priests and teachers of the Law. In a culture not entirely unlike our own, where the prideful and powerful cannot even be bothered to look at someone—especially a “lesser than” someone—Jesus is different. The God who sees is the God who has compassion, the one who cares, loves, and provides. The temple authorities should have been the ones that would see. They should have seen the widow and prepared to serve her. But they did not.

And so, what did Jesus see when He looked at the widow? He saw her manipulated yet vibrant heart, her hard life, her coarse hands. There were many important people of the day that Jesus did not talk to, or if He did, the Spirit did not guide the recording of those interactions in the New Testament. Jesus was concerned with building a Kingdom of the humble, in which this widow would receive her crown. All are made in the image of God, but few are in the likeness. In the widow, it appears as if image and likeness converge. Image of what? The Image of God, which is to say the image of Beauty. She herself, by being in His image and likeness, is a most beautiful daughter.

Jesus tears it down

And this is why Jesus is so angry. This text is often taken to be a simple example of how we are to give: selflessly. But the widow does more than give selflessly. One might say she gives recklessly. Indeed, the Law did not require this sacrifice from her want. Sacrifices were requested from one’s bounty, even a meager bounty, but not one’s destitute drought. As Craig Evans writes, what Jesus says here of the widow is “no word of praise; it is a lament. Instead of being assisted by the temple establishment, as the Law of Moses commands, the poor widow has been exploited by the temple establishment and reduced to abject poverty.”[3] Jesus would have had in mind words from Deuteronomy 14, 16, and 26, the latter of which actually commands that tithes themselves be shared with destitute widows. The temple establishment should have been protecting her from vultures, not devouring her like a vulture itself. Here the words of Gregory of Nyssa discussing the treatment of the poor help supply us with the charged nature of what Jesus is witnessing:

If God sees these scenes—and I am sure He does—what fatal catastrophe, do you think, does He hold in store for those who hate the poor? Answer me! Or do you not know that it is to this end that the holy gospel shouts out and testifies with scenes of horror and dread?[4]

As Jesus leaves the temple that day, one of the disciples marvels at its beauty. The word Jesus used for “devour” in Mark 12:40 about the widow’s house is katesthiontes, which describes a complete consumption. In John 2:17 Jesus is at the temple, angered at what He finds, and it says His zeal for the Lord’s house consumed Him (using the same word as “devour”). Rather than being consumed by zeal for the Lord’s house, the temple establishment devoured the widow. In a grand bit of irony, Jesus describes the destruction of this house to the disciples. “Do you see all these great buildings?” He asks. “Not one stone will be left on another. Every one will be thrown down” (Mark 13:2). Christ’s own body, of course, was the temple destroyed and rebuilt in three days (John 2:19-21). But the empty stone temple, the one He described as falling, was rendered as good as dust on Good Friday and was devoured by Rome forty years later.

Seeing Jesus

The problem with the religious establishment, those waiting for the Messiah, is that they had grown so hardened that they could not see Him in their midst, because they could not see the hurting world He came to heal. “To see Christ,” writes Jennifer Carnes, “is to see God coming in love to save the wounded. To see rightly the Christ who is God, then, one must rightly see the wounded.”[5] This painful omission is all too common amongst God’s people still today. But for the unseen, the forgotten, the overlooked, the pushed down, the pushed over, the mistreated, for all of you, take heart and know that there is a God who sees you. The world may not see or value you, but a crown awaits. Keep your heart kind and humble, harmless as a dove (Matthew 10:16). Do not let the world turn you into itself—something I have to remind myself of daily. Instead, God help us look more like You. For those who cruelly devour will be devoured, and to those who give even in poor spirit, yours is the Kingdom of Heaven. Remain meek, for yours is the earth. Blessed are the pure in heart, the ones who keep trying, those seen by God, for you will yourself gaze into the eyes of God’s grandeur (Matthew 5:3-12).

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[1] Mark 12:38-40. Emphases added.

[2] Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur,” in God’s Grandeur and Other Poems (New York: Dover Publications, 1995), 15.

[3] Craig A. Evans, “Social Justice or Personal Righteousness?” in Cynthia Long Westfall and Bryan R. Dyer (eds.), The Bible and Social Justice: Old Testament and New Testament Foundations for the Church’s Urgent Call, McMaster New Testament Studies (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2015), 106.

[4] Natalie Carnes, Beauty: A Theological Engagement with Gregory of Nyssa (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014), 156.

[5] Ibid., 152.