Those who take a biblical verse or passage out of its original context often hear a completely different message from the one the sacred author intended. This is the case with Jesus' comment on the widow's generous temple contribution in Sunday's Gospel (Mk 12: 38-44).

In his excellent work, "The Cultural World of Jesus," John Pilch returns Jesus' remark to the context in which Mark originally placed it. When he does, he comes up with a message at odds with the one we usually hear proclaimed.

Dr. Pilch believes Jesus' statement -- "This widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury; she has put in everything she had, her whole living" -- is not a word of praise but a word of lament.

Balance

Putting these words in context, he reminds us that, back in chapter 7, "Jesus said it is wrong to donate to the temple while depriving one's parents of support. It would be doubly wrong for a needy person to donate to the temple and plunge only deeper into poverty."

The author points out that immediately before Jesus' comment on the widow, he condemns the scribes for "devouring widows' houses." Then going to the passage which follows this remark, he asks, "How could Jesus in good conscience praise this woman for donating `everything she had' to the temple which in the very next verses He predicts will be utterly destroyed?"

According to Pilch, "Jesus laments this woman's behavior. She has been taught `sacrificial giving' by her religious leaders.... These authorities promised to redistribute temple collections to the needy. In actuality, they spent the funds on conspicuous consumption: long robes and banquets. This is how they devoured the estates of widows."

Another factor supporting this novel interpretation springs from the authorities' refusal to permit early Jewish Christians to participate either in synagogue or temple services. This prohibition eventually forced those who "followed the way" to replace Jewish sacred places, customs and rituals with the person of the risen Jesus.

We see this transfer classically expressed in the second reading (Heb 9: 24-28). The author believes Jesus, alive in the community, has become the Holy of Holies and the High Priest around which temple worship revolves. Christians no longer have to go to a specific geographic location to offer sacrifice for their sins, neither do they depend on human mediators. Jesus replaces both.

Sacrifice

"Christ did not enter into a sanctuary made by hands, a copy of the true one, but heaven itself, that He might now appear before God on our behalf....Christ offered [the sacrifice of Himself] once to take away the sins of many."

How could Mark's Jesus praise someone for sacrificing everything to a place and system which Christians believe Jesus has replaced?

Jesus' constant Gospel teaching is grounded in a belief that religion is never to use people's benevolence to enrich itself. Christians are to direct their generosity to the needs of others, not to an institution.

We find this kind of generosity in the first reading (I Kgs 17: 10-16). The starving widow takes what little she and her son have, and share it with an impoverished foreigner. The author assures us that such fearless giving brings life. Since she offered everything she had to a stranger in need, the widow's "jar of flour did not go empty, nor the jug of oil run dry."

Biblical faith doesn't consist in being able to quote one or two lines of Scripture out of context, but in living one's life in the same faith context in which Jesus lived His. Those who generously give themselves over to such a quest will eventually discover that risen Jesus in their lives.

(11-09-00)