Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything–all she had to live on.”
Mark 12: 41-44
This another of the gospel stories I’m convinced has been consistently misinterpreted. Every sermon I’ve ever heard on this passage — and some I’ve preached myself — have read this as a commendation of the widow’s faith, giving all she had to the work of God. They go on to exhort congregations to think about how sacrificially they’re prepared to give.
The only way we could reach such an interpretation of this story is by reading it in isolation, separated from what went before and comes after, so let’s remind ourselves. Jesus has just warned against the teachers of the Law who “devour widows’ houses”, only to see a widow putting the last of her money into the temple treasury. “See,” says Jesus. “Just as I said.”
There disciples aren’t convinced, being too impressed by the magnificence of the buildings — prompting Jesus to warn of the temple’s imminent destruction. Read in context, this story is a link in the chain of Jesus’ announcement of the end of the temple and the repressive authority it represents.
Far from being a commendation of the widow’s faith, this is a condemnation of those who cause a poor women to destitute herself for the sake of religious observance.
Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?” But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then Jesus said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” And they were amazed at him.
Mark 12: 13-17
Having created a stir in the temple courtyard by his actions, Jesus continues to stir things up with his teaching. The poll tax was regarded with deep hatred by the Jews and presumably the Pharisees and Herodians (a strange and unholy alliance!) thought they had Jesus by the proverbials with their question: if he says, “Don’t pay” he can be dobbed in to the Romans; if he says “Pay up” the people can be turned against him. Gotcha.
There is nothing evasive in Jesus’ answer. By asking them to produce a denarius, the coin used for the paying of the poll tax, Jesus has his questioners “hoist by their own petard”. In carrying Caesar’s money, they are implicitly accepting Caesar’s authority. More seriously, they have brought images of the emperor into the temple, an act strictly forbidden by the Law. In doing so, they have shown where their loyalties lie.
“If you owe Caesar, pay Caesar.”
What we have here is not parallelism of God and Caesar, but a clear opposition between the two. Further confrontation is inevitable.
On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple area and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts.
Mark 11:15-16 (New International Version)
The 3 synoptic gospels tell us that after Jesus had made his grand entrance into Jerusalem, he went to the temple and chased out the moneychangers and the sellers of sacrificial animals. It’s a story that many Christians are fond of. Here is none of that wimpy turn-the-other-cheek guff. This is a kick ass Jesus who knows how to sort out the bad guys. Time and again, this incident has been used by Christians to justify their participation in violence. Faced with the exploitation of the temple courtyards, Jesus forgets the idealistic nonsense and gives them a taste of the only language they’ll understand.
First, forget any assumption that Jesus is objecting to commerce in the temple. This was essential for two reasons. First, the law demanded the sacrifice of unblemished animals. Having animals available for sale ‘on the spot’ made a good deal of sense. How irritating would it be to drag a basket with a couple of doves in it all the way from Galilee to discover when you arrived in Jerusalem that they weren’t up to scratch? Like the animal sellers, the moneychangers provided an essential service, turning Roman money (with its image of the emperor) into something which could be taken into the temple without breaking the Law of God. So these weren’t corrupt practices, but essential to the running of the temple.
What we see when Jesus goes to the temple is not a violent confrontation with evil-doers. Like Palm Sunday, it’s another bit of street theatre — or enacted prophecy, if you’d rather. Jesus is declaring the end of the temple and its sacrifices, not acting decisively to protect its purity. Here he stands in a direct line which runs from the prophets, who were ever suspicious of the temple and its hierarchy. For this reason, the title ‘cleansing of the temple’ is a bit of a misnomer. Jesus isn’t seeking to reform or renew the Temple. In this prophetic act, he’s declaring its end.
To try to use this incident as a justification for Christian involvement in violence is an act of utter desperation. Faced with the overwhelming evidence of the life and teaching of Jesus, the only way such reasoning can be sustained is by giving priority to an existing commitment to pursue violence over the Lordship of Christ. It’s as simple as that. No one can serve two masters, he said. And he meant it.