Show Me The Money: Studies in Mark, Pt. 52

Of the sixteen chapters in Mark’s Gospel, chapter 12 is perhaps my favorite. I love how Jesus interacts with the characters He encounters here: Pharisees, Sadducees, Scribes, Teachers of the Law, Herodians, Disciples, Crowds and even a widow. There are two scenes in chapter 12 that have to do with money or better yet, coins. The first one is where Jesus says, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.” He says this as He’s holding up a coin that bears Caesar’s image and inscription. It is my view that since Jesus has been railing against the empire since chapter one, He is not at this point saying “support” or “submit” to Caesar. Instead, He is saying “throw the coin dedicated to Caesar back in Caesar’s face.”

Just before this, Jesus had flipped over the tables in the Jerusalem Temple and had driven out the money changers who were committing extortion (ripping the people off by overcharging them) and banking on people’s religious practices (much like the lying and manipulative TV preachers who sell holy water or prayer cloths today). Jesus is livid about the poor being taken even more advantage of. In chapter 11, He even decides to stay in Bethany (Bet-ani / Hebrew) which means “house of the poor” instead of the Temple courts during Passover. In doing this, He is showing solidarity with the poor. He is doing the same thing when He bids people to throw the coin in Caesar’s face—an act of refusal, not submission.

It is my view that—and as far as I am aware, nobody else has done this—Mk. 12.41-4 needs to be read through the lens of these stories that precede it. Adrian Wright was surely right in saying that Jesus is not praising but rather lamenting the “widow’s mite”. In other words, Jesus is not attempting to point out how great her act of giving two coins was, instead, He’s saying “she has bought into this corrupt system so much that she would literally give everything she has to it, how sad!” Indeed, in the next few lines (the first few verses of chapter 13) Jesus says that the Temple is going to be destroyed. Thus, it makes little sense for Him to praise her act of giving to the Temple and then turn right around and talk about the corrupt Temple being destroyed. It’s like donating to a dead-end cause. There’s nothing honorable about that.

It makes little sense to me that Jesus can in one breath tell people to throw money back in Caesar’s face and in the next turn around and praise the act of tithing to Caesar! Jesus is not happy with what the woman has done instead, He is saddened by the fact that she’s being taken advantage of and that she is just going along with it (not that she could do much; perhaps she had been listening when He told the crowds to throw their money back but did not heed to His advice). Thus, despite all of the commentaries that emphasize this woman’s great deed in contrast to everyone else’s small deed, that is not what this passage is saying. Jesus is not happy that either large or small amounts are being given to the government.

What this passage is getting at is that widows like this woman, who were supposed to be protected by Israelite law, are now being taken advantage of by the religio-political leaders. The poor are too! Jesus is standing with them. At once, He is both bothered with how they are being treated and standing with them, trying to make things better. Given the narrative context of chapters 11-13 and particularly chapter 12, when Jesus is shown the money, He extends a challenge to people: Stop supporting this sick, deceitful religious system and begin doing what’s right—even if it means dying for your principles! That’s often the “cost” of being Jesus' followers, a point which is illustrated by the sacrifice of His own life, a sacrifice not just for the sins of the world but also for true, noble and godly causes and principles!

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