In this story, Jesus has sat down opposite the treasury, and later he will sit down opposite the temple itself (Mark 13:3). This kind of language situates Jesus in space, but it also gives his theological position. He is opposite, or opposed to, these institutions. So, even though Jesus is not saying much in this story, the storyteller is letting us in on his position. In addition to that, we sort of get to hang-out with Jesus… in his off-hours, as it were.
To set the rest of the scene, Passover was the biggest festival of the year. In fact, so many people came to Jerusalem for Passover that the city limits had to be temporarily expanded so that those who came for the festival could be in the city proper for their Passover meal, as required. People would have been greeting old friends and making arrangements for their feasts. They probably wore their best clothes, or they might even have gotten something new. It was a joyous time.
During all this, Jesus and his friends took a few minutes to watch the people as they came into the Women’s Court and made their way over to the temple treasury boxes. This would have been one of the busiest places in Jerusalem, just right for people-watching. I am certain that Jesus and the disciples talked about what what people were wearing, who may have looked tired, noting those who looked a little lost in the hub-bub. “Look at that guy,” one would say. Or, “Check out the tunic on that fellow.”
At some point, Jesus noted that some of the people appeared to be quite rich, and they gave a lot of money to the temple. The Women’s court was only about 200 square feet so anyone within it would be able to tell who was giving a lot of money and who was not. The heavy coins of the big givers would make a noise in the trumpet shaped opening of the treasury boxes. Some people, it seems, threw their money in with a little force so that it made more noise than it might have otherwise. A mere didrachma (worth two drachma) might clatter almost as much as a tetradrachama (worth four drachma) if tossed in with just enough panache. The other give-away, and this might have been more telling than the inexact science of listening to the coins go in, was to observe which offering box people went to. Almost everybody would have paid the half-shekle temple tax (two drachma, in the Roman money which was accepted in the temple). This is the tax that Jesus told Peter to pay with a coin (a tetradrachma) that he would find in a fish’s mouth in Matthew 17. Those temple-tax boxes were the first two boxes, and they were located by the Gate of Susan. The other eleven boxes were for different kinds of payments: three and four, for example, were for turtledoves and pigeons respectively. Boxes nine through thirteen, though, were for voluntary payments. People who had money left over after paying their temple tax and any sin tax, would put what was left over in these treasury boxes. They gave from their abundance, from the left-overs. So, it was simple deduction to figure out who was rich and who was poor. It really must have made for fine people watching. As I have noticed in my travels, there’s nothing like a festival to bring out the fringe elements.
It was possible to give money anonymously by going to the Chamber of The Silent. Money left there was used to educate the poor. Nobody in our story today made that choice, though. Even the poor widow, who is sometimes (incorrectly) held up as an example of one who gave their all, gave what she had publicly. There are no anonymous givers in this story. It’s all out in the open. Neither the widow who caught Jesus’s attention, nor the rich who tossed in their coins noisily were any different from any other temple-goers. The only reason we know about these is because Jesus made note of them. He didn’t confront them, help them, heal them, or teach them. He is just observed and, with his friends, he commented.
I feel like I know the rich people in this story. These type of people don’t change very much over the centuries. I’d have to say that just about every parish I’ve ever been part of has at least one person who wants everybody to know what they have given, or what grandma gave, or that the organ was a gift of their family trust. They are not proud or boastful, of course. They just want everybody to know. They are not confined to religion either. I would guess that all groups have these people and, in any century, they are not very interesting.
The widow, though, is a mystery. Despite Torah teachings and traditions, widows were not always cared for in those days. The legal system left them vulnerable and the temple provided them no recourse. Earlier in this chapter (verse 40) Jesus warns about the teachers of the law who eat up widow’s houses at their banquets. It’s a little play on words: eating and consuming. This great institution — “Just look at the size of it! It’s magnificent!” one of the disciples will remark — had succeeded in organizing the offerings of the Jews, but it failed to care for it’s widows.
Neither the Bible, nor any other text that I know of, give us any real information about the widow. She might have been recently widowed, maybe still stunned by grief. Or, maybe she had been alone for awhile and just didn’t know what to do. She might have wandered the city thinking about her situation, or hoping that she’d be invited to share a Passover meal with someone. But nobody invited her, and she must not have been able to come up with a plan that would let her see a future for herself. She had nobody to turn to.
She did have those two coins and she could have given them to a friend, another widow, or a beggar. Even if there was nobody else in her life, surely she could have found a beggar! She had some options, including the option to just die with the money in her pocket. It is such a small amount — copper coins called lepton — that it didn’t really matter what she did with it. For one reason or another, though, she took those little coins to the temple that day and threw them away. In doing so, she was throwing her life away. Yes, throwing it away! For, without any money, she would surely die. Her’s is not an act of grand sacrifice, of giving her all for God. Only people who have something to lose can make a sacrifice. The nameless widow has nothing to lose. She is either going to die this week, or next week; but, she is going to die.
She might have realized how the temple had failed her and that she was about to die, and thrown her two coins in anger, or as a public rebuke. Or, she might not have realized how she’d been wronged and simply taken care of this one last thing before she went off to die. We don’t know. Either way, she was a victim, and Jesus notices victims. In fact, he is about to become one! Jesus, also, has reached the point of having nothing left to lose. This might have been the moment when he realized that he only had a few more little gifts to offer, just a little bit more to teach, one more lesson to throw into the treasury.
I wonder what little bit I have to contribute to the treasury? As the holiday season approaches I might be able to put in a lot of coins and make some noise. But I might also give the gift of noticing, of paying attention.
In my people-watching will I be able to spot those who are like me? What will I learn about myself from that?
Will I be able to see those who may need an invitation to dinner, or just a kind word? Encouragement is as good as food in some souls.
When I see the rich in their fine clothes will I judge them, or will I realize that there are all kinds of poverty, and that we all have one kind or another, even if it is well hidden?