As he concludes his teaching in the Temple, Jesus sits down opposite the treasury — the thirteen large trumpet-shaped receptacles in the Court of the Women, nine for the receipt of what was due (payment for wood, incense, pigeons and so on), four for voluntary donations. When he is recorded as sitting down it is usually either to teach or to pass judgment (often the same thing). Watching rich people putting in their contributions, he draws the disciples’ attention to the woman whose mourning dress presumably reveals her status: ‘Truly I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury, for they all contributed out of their abundance but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living’ (12:43-44).
The question is: Was Jesus commending the widow and recommending his followers to imitate her generosity — or was he passing judgment on the Temple, for its power to exploit her innocence?
In his judgment the Temple was certainly doomed. As Jesus leaves for the last time, a disciple cries out: ‘Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!’ — to which he angrily replies: ‘Are you looking at these grand buildings? There will not be left one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down’ (13:1-2). Then, seated again, ‘on the Mount of Olives opposite the Temple’, this time clearly in the judgment seat, Jesus delivers the lengthy address to the inner circle of the disciples, telling them about the signs of the coming end of the world, which leads, as St Mark tells us the story, into the Passion and the symbolic destruction of the Holy of Holies (chapters 14-16).
In donating her ‘whole living’ to the Temple, the widow is often seen as summing up the story so far and foreshadowing what is to come. Her act of total self-impoverishment is taken as both exemplifying the kind of radical abandonment to God that Jesus calls for, and also anticipating, figuratively, his own coming self-sacrifice. The widow’s mite was equal to about one sixty-fourth of a day’s wage for a poorly paid labourer. She gives her little, which is her all. And, since it is all she has, its value in Jesus’s eyes infinitely exceeds what the affluent worshippers put into the treasury.
That’s one way of taking the episode. It focuses on the figure of the widow. What about the Temple and its holy men, however? Remembering the context, is the poor widow to be seen as heroically and even absurdly generous — or is she, rather, the ultimate innocent victim of a predatory system? Jesus concludes his teaching in the Temple by proclaiming that the scribes would ‘receive the greater condemnation’ — not only on account of their jockeying for privileges and faking lengthy devotions, but also because they ‘devour widows’ houses’ (12:40). They are condemned precisely for exploiting widows financially? Are we really to assume that Jesus could go on immediately to praise the poor widow for rendering herself destitute in order to help to fund these corrupt men and this doomed institution? By placing himself opposite the treasury as he leaves for the last time doesn’t Jesus focus on the Temple, not as the holy of holies, the sanctuary for the divine presence, partly indeed dependent on the charity of the worshippers, but solely as the great financial enterprise, which it also was, the principal industry in the city, and as prone to corruption as even great religious institutions have always been? Like Ezekiel or Amos isn’t Jesus raging against an institution that was so corrupt that, instead of protecting the most vulnerable, like the widow, it could deceive the likes of the widow into voluntarily supporting the very system that devoured their living?
In short: doesn’t the power of the Temple have to be broken? ‘When he gave a loud cry and breathed his last’, in the end, ‘the curtain of the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom’ (15:37-38). Forty years would pass before it was actually razed to the ground but judgment had already been passed on the Temple. One lesson for us, alas, is that there are institutions in our own day which repeat this same pattern of deceiving innocent and generous people into willingly supporting them — long after the pretentions of such organizations should have been torn in two.