Mark 12: 38-44

I propose a biblical analysis with the following steps: a study of each Greek word of the evangelical text, followed by an analysis of the structure of the narrative and its context, to which is added a comparison of parallel or similar passages. At the end of this analysis and as a conclusion, I propose to summarize what the evangelist meant, and I end up with some suggestions on how this Gospel could shed light on our current situation.


  1. Translation of the Greek text (28th edition of Kurt Aland)

    Greek textTransliterated Greek textLiteral translationTranslation in current language
    38 Καὶ ἐν τῇ διδαχῇ αὐτοῦ ἔλεγεν· βλέπετε ἀπὸ τῶν γραμματέων τῶν θελόντων ἐν στολαῖς περιπατεῖν καὶ ἀσπασμοὺς ἐν ταῖς ἀγοραῖς38 Kai en tē didachē autou elegen· blepete apo tōn grammateōn tōn thelontōn en stolais peripatein kai aspasmous en tais agorais 38 And in the teaching of him he was saying, Look away from the scribes those wanting in robes to walk and greetings in the marketplaces and 38 And in his teaching, Jesus said: "Open your eyes to the Bible scholars, those who like to stroll around in long robes and [receive] bows in public squares,
    39 καὶ πρωτοκαθεδρίας ἐν ταῖς συναγωγαῖς καὶ πρωτοκλισίας ἐν τοῖς δείπνοις,39 kai prōtokathedrias en tais synagōgais kai prōtoklisias en tois deipnois, 39 and first seats in the synagogues and first places in the banquets39 and places of honor in synagogues and first places in feasts,
    40 οἱ κατεσθίοντες τὰς οἰκίας τῶν χηρῶν καὶ προφάσει μακρὰ προσευχόμενοι· οὗτοι λήμψονται περισσότερον κρίμα.40 hoi katesthiontes tas oikias tōn chērōn kai prophasei makra proseuchomenoi· houtoi lēmpsontai perissoteron krima. 40 those devouring the houses of the widows and for pretence long [time] praying. Those they will receive aboundant judgment 40 people who devour the property of widows and, for appearance, spend long moments in prayer. They will be judged more severely.
    41 Καὶ καθίσας κατέναντι τοῦ γαζοφυλακίου ἐθεώρει πῶς ὁ ὄχλος βάλλει χαλκὸν εἰς τὸ γαζοφυλάκιον. καὶ πολλοὶ πλούσιοι ἔβαλλον πολλά.41 Kai kathisas katenanti tou gazophylakiou etheōrei pōs ho ochlos ballei chalkon eis to gazophylakion. kai polloi plousioi eballon polla· 41 And having sat down opposite to the treasury, he was watching how the crowd cast copper (money) into the treasury and many rich were casting much. 41 Later, while sitting in front of the treasure room, he watched the crowd throwing coins into the treasure room. Many rich people were throwing a lot.
    42 καὶ ἐλθοῦσα μία χήρα πτωχὴ ἔβαλεν λεπτὰ δύο, ὅ ἐστιν κοδράντης.42 kai elthousa mia chēra ptōchē ebalen lepta dyo, ho estin kodrantēs. 42 And having come one poor widow, she cast two leptons which is a quadrans.42 When a poor widow presented herself, she threw two lepts, which is ten minutes' pay for a laborer of the day.
    43 καὶ προσκαλεσάμενος τοὺς μαθητὰς αὐτοῦ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς· ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι ἡ χήρα αὕτη ἡ πτωχὴ πλεῖον πάντων ἔβαλεν τῶν βαλλόντων εἰς τὸ γαζοφυλάκιον·43 kai proskalesamenos tous mathētas autou eipen autois· amēn legō hymin hoti hē chēra hautē hē ptōchē pleion pantōn ebalen tōn ballontōn eis to gazophylakion· 43 And having call to himself the disciples of him he said to them, "Amen, I say to you, that this poor widow she cast more than all who were casting towards the treasury.43 And having then called his disciples, he said to them, "Truly, I assure you, this widow, who is poor, has cast more than all those who have thrown into the treasure room.
    44 πάντες γὰρ ἐκ τοῦ περισσεύοντος αὐτοῖς ἔβαλον, αὕτη δὲ ἐκ τῆς ὑστερήσεως αὐτῆς πάντα ὅσα εἶχεν ἔβαλεν ὅλον τὸν βίον αὐτῆς.44 pantes gar ek tou perisseuontos autois ebalon, hautē de ek tēs hysterēseōs autēs panta hosa eichen ebalen holon ton bion autēs. 44 Because all out of what is abounding to them they cast, then her out of her poverty all as much as she had she cast her whole livelihood.44 Indeed, they have all thrown from their superfluity, while she, from her poverty, has thrown away all she had to live".

  1. Analysis of each verse

    v. 38 And in his teaching, Jesus said: "Open your eyes to the Bible scholars, those who like to stroll around in long robes and [receive] bows in public squares,

    Literally: And in the teaching (didachē) of him he was saying, Look away (blepete) from the scribes (grammateōn) those wanting in robes (stolais) to walk (peripatein) and greetings (aspasmous) in the marketplaces (agorais) and

didachē (teaching) The noun didachē means: teaching, i.e. the action of teaching. Our Bibles sometimes translate it as "doctrine" (see King James' translation) when the emphasis is on the content of what is taught; e.g., "Vain is the worship they give me, the doctrines (didachē) they teach are but human precepts" (Mk 7:7). It is important to Mark: Mt = 3; Mk = 5; Lk = 1; Jn = 3; Acts = 4; 1Jn = 0; 2Jn = 3; 3Jn = 0. To fully understand this significance, we must include in our analysis the verb didaskō (teach, instruct): Mt = 13; Mk = 17; Lk = 17; Jn = 10; Acts = 16; 1Jn = 2; 2Jn = 0; 3Jn = 0. Also include the title didaskalos (teacher, one who teaches): Mt = 12; Mk = 12; Lk = 17; Jn = 8; Acts = 1; 1Jn = 0; 2Jn = 0; 3Jn = 0. What interests us here is the noun "teaching", the verb "to teach" and the title "teacher" when these three words refer to Jesus. When we combine these three words in their reference to Jesus, we obtain the following statistics for the four Gospels: Mt = 21; Mk = 32; Lk = 23; Jn = 17. The number of occurrences in Mark is all the more impressive because it is the shortest of the Gospels. Thus, the evangelist intends to insist on the figure of Jesus as a teacher who teaches. Why does he do this?

This insistence is surprising, because Mark often gives us the impression of insisting on the action of Jesus, on the miracle worker who heals and casts out many evil spirits. Yet there is no contradiction. Let's start with Jesus' first public activity after choosing his disciples.

They enter Capernaum. And immediately, on the Sabbath, having entered the synagogue, he teached (didaskō). And they were struck with his teaching (didachē), for he teached (didaskō) them as having authority, and not as the scribes. (1: 21-22)

What is remarkable is that Mark simply tells us that Jesus taught, without specifying the content of his teaching. Rather, he specifies his way of teaching: with authority (exousia: right, power, authority, permission). To make this point clear to us, he contrasts it with the scribes, who were commentators or interpreters of Scripture; the latter simply repeated what Scripture said, trying to add some insight. In contrast, Jesus does not comment, he is the author of what he says, hence the word authority, and hence the reaction of the people, "What is this? A teaching (didachē) new, given by authority!" (1: 27).

But there is more. To illustrate the authority and power of Jesus' word, Mark follows the mention of teaching with the act of healing a man with an unclean spirit. Let's not think that teaching and healing are two different actions. It is the same action: Jesus' teaching is transformative.

In this, Mark is different from the other evangelists. For example, one would look in vain in his Gospels for stories where Jesus teaches rules of conduct as in Matthew, or offers theological teaching as in John. In particular, he only mentions in a general way that Jesus teaches mainly to the crowds. Why does he do this? Here is his answer:

When he came ashore, he saw a large crowd, and he had pity on them, because they were like sheep that have no shepherd, and he began to teach (didaskō) them at length. (6: 34)

Jesus teaches that the crowd should have a shepherd, a shepherd who feeds them, as the scene of the feeding of the crowd that follows will explain. Mark seems to indicate that Jesus is giving them a direction, a meaning to their lives that can animate them. When we try to specify the content of this teaching to the crowds, we end up with the parables:

He teached (didaskō) them many things in parables and he told them in his teaching (didachē)... (4: 2)

Basically, all these parables (the sower, the lamp and the measure, the seed that grows by itself, the seed and the mustard) focus on the dynamics of the kingdom of God that nothing can prevent from growing. This is in line with the initial words of Jesus: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near: change your way and believe in the Gospel" (1:15). There is a force of God at work in the world that transforms everything, so that nothing can stop it.

Jesus' teaching is not centered on any morality, but on the power of God's intervention, on the good news that transforms all and heals all. This is why the simple fact of mentioning that Jesus teaches and following it with a healing is sufficient: the two gestures enlighten each other.

Most of the time, Jesus teaches the crowds. But sometimes he has a special teaching for his disciples. The tone is totally different.

And he began to teach (didaskō) them, "The Son of Man must suffer much, be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, be killed, and after three days rise again" (8:31)

For he instructed (didaskō) his disciples and said to them, "The Son of Man is given over into the hands of men, and they will kill him, and when he has been killed, after three days he will rise again." (9: 31)

He said again in his teaching (didachē): "Beware of the scribes who delight in going around in long robes, receiving greetings in the public squares (12: 38)

Thus, for the disciples, there are two types of teaching: 1) the revelation that entrance into eternal life is through suffering and the sacrifice of one's life; 2) the warning against a religious elite that cultivates the image of their person. Why is this teaching reserved for the disciples? Because they are following in the footsteps of a master, and the ignoble fate of the master is likely to be a source of scandal; and as disciples, they must avoid the trap of a religious elite.

Let us say a word about didaskalos (teacher). In the Greek world, it refers to the teacher, often paid, responsible for developing the abilities of his students (on the subject, see André Myre, Nouveau vocabulaire biblique. Paris-Montreal: Bayard – Médiaspaul, 2004, p. 291). One would look for it in vain in the Septuagint. For although it translated the Hebrew lamad (to teach) as didaskō, it refused to translate the one who teaches as didaskalos (two exceptions, Est 6:1, which has the sense of "reader" and 2Mac 1:10 to designate Aristobulus, a commentator on Scripture), but opted instead for sophos (wise man): no doubt it was reluctant to translate by the reality of a paid person one who devoted himself to scrutinizing Scripture and deriving teaching from it to inform the conduct of life.

Mark sees no problem with having Jesus given the title "teacher" (didaskalos) either by the general public or by his disciples (12 times). And he prefers it to "rabbi" or rather "rabboni" (only once, in 10:51), and to "lord" (3 times, if we disregard the passage 16:19-20 which belongs to another author).

In short, for Mark, Jesus is a dynamic and unique teacher whose teaching is transformative good news.

Texts with didachē, didaskō and didaskalos in relation to Jesus in Mark
blepete (Look away) The verb blepete is the imperative tense, 2nd person plural, of the verb blepō : to see with one's eyes, to cast one's eyes upon, to observe. It is a very ordinary verb found regularly in the Gospels: Mt = 20; Mk = 15; Lk = 16; Jn = 17; Acts = 13; 1Jn = 0; 2Jn = 1; 3Jn = 0. It would not be worth noting, except that we have here a peculiarity of Mark: his Gospel is the only one to present this verb in the imperative (6 times), and in this case the verb has the meaning of: beware of, stay away from, open your eyes; it is an invitation to pay attention to something (the presence of blepō in the imperative in Lk. 21:8 and Mt 24:4 is only a copy of Mark).

Verb blepō in the Gospels-Acts
grammateōn (scribes) Grammateōn is the masculine, genitive, plural form of grammateus. The genitive is called by the preposition apo (from by). It is found especially in the synoptic Gospels: Mt = 21; Mk = 20; Lk = 14; Jn = 1; Acts = 4; 1Jn = 0; 2Jn = 0; 3Jn = 0. It is usually translated as scribe, because the word has the same root as gramma (letter, character, writing, sign of the alphabet) and graphō (to write, to trace letters, to compose, to note down in writing); it is someone who knows how to read and write, and therefore could perform the function of clerk or secretary. We can understand the prestige of this function in a world where the majority of people could not read or write.

Note that the scribe has a long history that has an echo in the Old Testament. He is a royal official, a master not only in the art of writing documents, but also in certain techniques, such as those of cadastres, and he played an important role in the administration of the kingdom. He is found alongside David (2 Sam 8:17), Solomon (1 Kings 4:3), Joash (2 Kings 12:11), Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:18), Uzziah (2 Ch 26:11), Nehemiah (Ne 13:13). He was in charge of the preservation of the archives, and he played a role in the compilation of the sacred texts that gave us the Pentateuch (see L. Monloubou – F.M. Du But, Dictionnaire biblique universel. Paris-Québec: Desclée – Anne Sigier, 1984, pp. 686-687).

Personally, I like to translate the word "scribe" as "Bible scholar", because the Bible was the main object through which one learned to read, and the main purpose for which one learned to read. Moreover, when we observe their interventions in the Gospels, we notice that they intend to debate particular points of Scripture, like this echo in Mark where they taught that Elijah must come before the Messiah (9:11), that the Messiah is the son of David (12:35), and that God is unique (12:32).

At the outset, it is important to distinguish between the three social groups of scribes, Pharisees and high priests. For example, some scribes were Pharisees, but not all Pharisees were necessarily scribes. The Pharisees were a religio-political group and their name means: the separated, or those who are set apart; they appeared around the 2nd century BC, they aimed at a strict application of the law, and thus their search for purity led them to avoid contamination with the mass of people. This did not mean that they were all literate, hence the expression in Mark 2:16: "the scribes of the Pharisees", which Luke clarifies as "the Pharisees and their scribes"; thus, some of the scribes were in the party of the Pharisees. Since their oral tradition was very important, the need to know how to read was even less important.

As for the high priests, one can imagine that many of them could read and write, but their membership in a hereditary lineage and their totally different role made them a distinct group. Finally, it should be noted that the scribes are named with the high priests and elders because they reflected the composition of the Sanhedrin.

How does Mark perceive the scribes? We can divide the way he portrays them into three categories.

  1. The scribe as a Bible scholar (5 times). Thus, according to their interpretation, the prophet Elijah was to return to earth before the arrival of the Messiah (9: 11)

  2. The scribe as a person who was shocked by the words and actions of Jesus

    • that he claims to forgive sins, an action reserved for God;
    • the fact that he shared the table with people who were considered sinners, in contradiction with the religious tradition;
    • that he claims to free people from an unclean spirit;
    • that he does not respect the religious rules of ritual purity;
    • that he interrupts the tradition of trade in the temple, allowing the purchase of animals for the sacrifice

  3. The scribe as anti-model and adversary. On the one hand, he is a person who uses his position as a stooge, and on the other hand, he joins the chief priests and the elders to kill Jesus

Here, in v. 38, the scribe is presented as an anti-model, demonstrating an attitude to be rejected, as will be detailed later.

Noun grammateus in Mark
stolais (robes) Stolais is the word stolē (drooping garment, dress, garment, loose-fitting garment to the foot, outfit) in the feminine dative plural. It is very rare: Mt = 0; Mk = 2; Lk = 2; Jn = 0; Acts = 0; 1Jn = 0; 2Jn = 0; 3Jn = 0. To fully understand this piece of clothing, we need to include in our analysis two other pieces of clothing from antiquity: himation (cloak) and chitōn (tunic).

Let's start with chitōn (Mt = 2; Mk = 2; Lk = 3; Jn = 2; Acts = 1; 1Jn = 0; 2Jn = 0; 3Jn = 0) which is a tunic or shirt that was worn directly over the skin and served as undergarment. So, when John mentions (19:23) that the soldiers made four parts with the garments (himation) of Jesus, and then when they came to the tunic (chitōn) which was seamless, they decided not to tear it and to draw it out; all this means that Jesus ended up completely naked to be crucified (on Jesus' nakedness at the crucifixion, see R.E. Brown). When Mark's Jesus sends his disciples on a mission, telling them, "Do not put on two tunics," he invites them to travel light. For his part, Luke puts this word in Jesus' mouth in his speech on the plain: "from whom you take off your cloak (himation), do not refuse your tunic (chitōn)"; this means going so far as to give away one's underwear and be naked.

The most common word for clothing is himation: Mt = 13; Mk = 12; Lk = 10; Jn = 6; Acts = 8; 1Jn = 0; 2Jn = 0; 3Jn = 0. It is a rectangular piece of cloth worn over the chiton, so a kind of coat used as a sweat suit. For the Romans, himation refers to the toga. Mark gives us a good idea of the use of himation in 13:16, in this apocalyptic scene at the end of time: "and let him who is to be in the field not go back to take his cloak (himation)"; this means that when working in the field, presumably because of the physical exertion, one did not wear a cloak and made do with the chiton. Conversely, he tells us the story of Bartimaeus who, when Jesus calls him, throws off his cloak (himation) and leaps toward Jesus (10:50); the cloak prevents him from moving quickly.

In this context, where to situate stolē? We are looking at a piece of clothing as himation. But, according to W. Grimm (Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament), it would be a loose piece of clothing that came down to the feet and was reserved for men. Unfortunately, we only have three occurrences in the Gospels to give us an idea of what this garment is: in addition to this verse, there is Mk 16:5, which speaks of this young man sitting at the right side of the tomb, dressed in a white robe (stolē) and Lk 15:22, a parable where the father wants to celebrate the return of his lost son and asks the servants to clothe his son in his "first" garment (stolē), which is usually translated as "his best robe" (we don't count Lk 20:46 in the number of occurrences, because it is a copy of Mk 12:38). Elsewhere in the New Testament, it is found in Revelation where it is used synonymously with himation. So let's expand our search field to include the Septuagint where stolē appears about 90 times. Let us note that, as with the New Testament, himation occurs much more frequently (about 214 times).

When we go through the entire Old Testament, we realize that the Greek translation of the Septuagint associated stolē with a garment of a certain quality. For example, Gen 41:42:

LXX: Then Pharaoh took the ring off his hand and put it on Joseph's hand; he clothed him in a dress (stolē, Heb. beged) of the finest linen (byssinos, Heb. shesh), and put a golden collar around his neck.

Linen garments are considered of superior quality, and this is how Pharaoh honors Joseph. In the same line, we have this passage from Ezekiel 10:2:

LXX: And the Lord said to the man clothed in a long robe (stolē, Heb. bad = linen), Go in among the wheels under the cherubim, and take coals with full hands from the hearth that is between the cherubim, and scatter them over the city. And he went in before me.

The Hebrew text speaks of bad, a linen cloth, and the Septuagint translated it as stolē, and some Septuagint translators have translated stolē here as: long robe, to try to convey the idea of a fine garment. But all this is clarified later when Ezekiel speaks of the entrance to the temple of the Levite priests: "when they enter through the gate of the inner court, they shall be clothed with robes (stolē, Heb. beged) of linen (linon, Heb. pesheth)" (44:17).

The stolē is often referred to as the cloak of kings.

LXX: And on that day I will call my servant Elyakim son of Hilqiyyahu. And I will clothe him with your robe (stolē, Heb. kethoneth = tunic), and I will give him your crown with the empire, and I will put your ministry into his hands, and he shall be as a father to those who reside in Jerusalem and dwell in Judea. And I will give him the glory of David, and he shall rule, and shall have no adversary (Isaiah 22:20-22)

This is the announcement of the enthronement of King Elyakim. But it is not only the kings who wear the stolē, there are also the priests who must officiate at the temple.

LXX: After this Aaron shall enter the tabernacle of the testimony, and shall take off the garment (stolē, Heb. beged) of linen (linon, Heb. bad) which he shall have put on in order to enter into the sanctuary, and shall lay it down there. (Lev 16: 23)

This presentation of the priest in fine clothing is echoed in Sirach, probably written in the 2nd century BC.

LXX: When he (Simon the high priest) had taken the robe (stolē) of honor (doxa), and put on all his ornaments, and went up to the holy altar, he made the outskirts of the sanctuary shine (Sir 50:11)

Despite all that we have just said, stolē should not be considered a technical term to designate a specific garment. Besides, we could notice: to designate it as a quality garment, we have to add a qualifier: linen, or honorific, or beautiful. In itself, it could designate any garment, as we see in Deuteronomy 22:5:

LXX: The woman shall not wear clothing (skeuē, Heb. keli = garment) of a man, the man shall not wear dress (stolē, Heb. simlah = cloak) of a woman; whosoever shall do these things shall be an abomination to the Lord thy God.

The very fact that the Septuagint translated the reference to a woman's cloak as stolē, while Grimm, earlier, tells us in his dictionary that stolē is a man's garment, confirms that this word is to be taken in the general sense of a garment, even though it is this word that the Septuagint prefers to himation when intending to describe a garment of quality.

Let's go back to the Gospels. We said that Mark uses stolē at the end of his Gospel to describe the young man at the right of the entrance to Jesus' tomb, dressed in a white robe (16:5), and Luke to speak of the prodigal son's father's request to clothe his son in his first (best) robe (15:22). Now Mark, here in v. 38, tells of the scribes' liking to walk around in stolē, without associating a qualifier with it, such as handsome, or white, or of honor. As we have seen in the Septuagint, stolē is often associated with a garment of honor, but this is not an absolute rule, and often a qualifier is added. Here, we must recognize that Mark forces us to guess that it is a quality garment that attracts attention, otherwise the verse would be incomprehensible. On the other hand, when speaking of Jesus' cloak, he always uses himation, never stolē.

Texts on clothing in Mark

The chitōn




Roman toga that gives an idea of the stolē


peripatein (to walk) Peripatein is the verb peripateō in the active present infinitive tense. In the Synoptics, Mark uses it the most: Mt = 7; Mk = 9; Lk = 5; Jn = 17; Acts = 8; 1Jn = 5; 2Jn = 3; 3Jn = 2. It primarily means "to walk." Unlike verbs like "go" or "go to" or "go through," peripateō does not intend to describe a movement to somewhere; it simply means that the person is moving. For example, when Jesus invites a paralytic to walk (Mk 2:9), he simply asks him to move, a sign that he is healed.

So, in the context of the scribes who walk, they do not mean to go anywhere, but only to move around to be seen. Also peripateō is translated in our various bibles as: to circulate, to walk around, to stroll, to go around.

Verb peripateō in the New Testament
aspasmous (greetings) Aspasmous is the masculine accusative plural of aspasmos, which means: oral or written greeting, embrace, hug. In the New Testament, it appears only in the synoptic Gospels (Mt = 1; Mk = 1; Lk = 5; Jn = 0; Acts = 0) and in Paul ("The greeting is from my hand, to me, Paul"), where it is used to conclude a few letters (1 Cor 16:21; Col 4:18; 2 Thess 3:17). It is totally absent from the Septuagint. In the Synoptics, it is found only in two contexts, first that of the scribes who, according to Mark 12:38, like to receive greetings in public places, taken up by Matthew 23:7 and Luke 11:43 and 20:46, then that of Luke's infancy narrative in which Mary receives the angel's greeting (1:29: "Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you") and wonders what it means, and in which Elizabeth receives Mary's greeting, which leads the little girl to say "I am the Lord". 1: 40.44), which causes little John the Baptist to leap in her womb. There is, therefore, an important action in the gesture of the greeting that no longer exists in our modern greetings. For the scribes, lawyers and Pharisees to seek it out, there must have been a social impact that is difficult for us to guess. In order to describe what was rewarding about this gesture, we propose to translate aspasmos as "bowing," to express the social recognition implied by this gesture.

But note that there is something awkward about Mark's sentence (which is not new): the noun aspasmos has no verb. Indeed, Mark writes: "Open your eyes to the Bible scholars, those who like to stroll around in long robes as well as bows"; the only verb is peripateō (to walk), which we have translated as "stroll around": this is an intransitive verb that cannot introduce aspasmos (greeting/bow). To introduce aspasmos, one must add a verb like "to accept" or "to have" (NRSV and NIV have transformed the noun "greeting" into a verb: to be greeted with respect, the New American version has "accept greetings", the American Standard has "to have salutations", Jerusalem Bible has "to be greeted obsequiously", King James has "love salutations").

Noun aspasmos in the New Testament
agorais (marketplace) Agorais is the feminine dative plural of agora, which refers to the public square of a town or village. The agora was an important place of social life in ancient times. First of all, it was located at the entrance to the city, not at its center. It was there that the magistrates passed judgment (Acts 16:19: "But his masters, seeing their hopes of gain vanish, seized Paul and Silas, dragged them to the agora before the magistrates"), it was there that people went shopping (Ezek 27:22: LXX "The merchants of Sabba and Ramma, these were thy merchants, with choice spices, and precious stones: and they brought gold to thy marketplace (agora)"), it is where one must go to meet people (Acts 17:17: "So he (Paul) talked in the synagogue with Jews and those who worshipped God, and on the agora every day with the passers-by"). According to Mark, Jesus frequented the marketplace, and it was there very often that he performed healings (Mk 6:56: "And wherever he went, whether villages, towns, or farms, they put the sick in the marketplace (agora) and begged him to let them touch even the fringe of his cloak, and all who touched him were saved"). So a motley crowd was there, and that is why Mark writes: "The Pharisees do not eat on their way back from the marketplace (agora) until they have sprinkled themselves with water (to purify themselves)" (7:4).

Why do the scribes go to the public square, where everyone meets? The answer is obvious: to be seen, to receive the kowtowing and recognition they believe is due to them.

Noun agora in the New Testament
v. 39 and places of honor in synagogues and first places in feasts,

Literally: and first seats (prōtokathedrias) in the synagogues (synagōgais) and first places (prōtoklisias) in the banquets (deipnois)

prōtokathedrias (first seats) Prōtokathedrias is the accusative feminine plural of prōtokathedria. It is formed from two words: prōtos (first) and kathedra (seat, sitting or resting position), and therefore means: first place, place of honor. It is a word that appears nowhere in the Bible, except in the synoptic Gospels: Mt = 1; Mk = 1; Lk = 2; Jn = 0; Acts = 0. And all four occurrences focus on the attitude of the scribes, Pharisees and lawyers and their quest for first place in the synagogue.

It is easy to imagine that the scribes, whom we have described as biblical scholars, consider the synagogue to be their favorite place, and find it quite appropriate to occupy a place of honor there: are they not an authority on the Scriptures?

Noun prōtokathedria in the New Testament
synagōgais (synagogues) Synagōgais is the feminine dative plural of synagōgē. The word means: place of gathering, synagogue, assembly. It is associated with the verb synagō which means: to gather, to assemble. In the Old Testament it is very frequent and refers to anything that is multiple of something, for example: "an assembly of nations" (Gen 35:11), "the assembly of Jacob" (Deut 33:4), "the band of bulls" (Ps 68:31). In the New Testament, the word is found practically only in the Gospels-Acts (Mt = 9; Mk = 8; Lk = 15; Jn = 2; Acts = 19; the exception being Jas 2: 2 and Rev 2: 9; 3: 9). And it always refers to the gathering in the synagogue. This should come as no surprise: Jesus frequented the synagogue, and the early Christians frequented the synagogue until they were kicked out (on synagogue celebrations, refer to the Glossary).

In Mark, the reference to the synagogue is found in three different contexts.

  • Jesus preaching in the synagogue

    Mark wants to present us with a typical day of Jesus when he enters the synagogue on the Sabbath to preach (1:21), heals a man with an unclean spirit (1:23), which contributes to his fame, and this presentation is summed up as what follows: Jesus goes around Galilee preaching in all the synagogues and casting out demons (1:39). This typical day is echoed later when Jesus repeats a similar scenario by healing a man with a paralyzed hand (3:1), and later still when Mark summarizes Jesus' activity by saying, "On the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and the people were amazed, wondering who he was (6:2). The evangelist thus reminds us that Jesus used to frequent the synagogue, to teach there, and on occasion, to perform healings.

  • The scribes and their place in the synagogue

    The scribes participated assiduously in the activities of the synagogue. We know that during the week they could teach the Scriptures, and we imagine that on the Sabbath they had a special place; this is confirmed by Mk 12:39: "they want to occupy the first seats in the synagogues".

  • Synagogues at the time of the Christian communities

    Following the death of Jesus, the Jewish Christians continued to frequent the synagogue. The Acts of the Apostles tells us that there were Christians in the Damascus synagogue ("followers of the Way", 9:2), and once converted, Paul began to preach in the synagogues (9:20), as did his companions (see 14:1; 17:1.10; 18:4.19; 19:8). But this mixing of Christian Jews and non-Christians was not without clashes. The Roman Suetonius (The Twelve Ceasars, 25, 4) writes: "The emperor Claudius expelled from Rome some Jews who were causing a constant disturbance at the instigation of Chrestus"; one can guess that there were heated discussions in the synagogue between Christian Jews and non-Christians. According to Luke, this last event led the Jewish Christians Priscilla and Aquila to leave Rome for Corinth (Acts 18:2). Over time, it seems that relations became more difficult, or at least that is how Mark's words are to be understood: "Be on your guard. You will be handed over to the Sanhedrin, you will be beaten in the synagogues" (Mk 13:9). Since Mark's Gospel was completed before the year 70, we can assume that this conflict within the Jewish community between Christians and non-Christians existed in the period between the years 50-70.

Thus, for a Jew, especially outside Jerusalem, the synagogue represented the heart of his religious life, and the scribes occupied the center.

The glossary on the synagogue

Noun synagōgē in Mark

prōtoklisias (first places) Prōtoklisias is the feminine accusative plural of prōtoklisia. The latter is formed from two words: prōtos (first) and klisia (a place to lie down at a meal). Thus it means: place of honor at the table, or first couch at the table. Note that people used to recline on couches at festive meals. In the New Testament, it appears only in the synoptic Gospels: Mt = 1; Mk = 1; Lk = 3; Jn = 0; Acts = 0; elsewhere in the Bible, it is found only in the 2nd book of Maccabees (4: 21).

It is Mark who introduces this word, and it appears only here. Matthew simply recopies this passage in Mt 23:6, which Luke also does in 20:46. In Luke it is only found in another scene where Jesus is invited to eat at the home of a chief of the Pharisees and addresses the guests, after noticing that they were looking for the first places, to denounce this attitude (14:7-8).

According to the social mores of the time, the best couch was close to the host who had organized the banquet, and that this was a mark of deference and honor. This is what some people, especially the scribes, seem to have been looking for, and they probably considered it appropriate for their rank. Moreover, it is easy to imagine that it was mainly the members of the aristocracy who had the privilege of being able to learn.

Noun prōtoklisia in the Bible
deipnois (banquets) Deipnois is the neuter dative plural of deipnon. This word does not refer to any meal, but to the main meal eaten in the evening, called "dinner" in France, "supper" elsewhere, and it refers to a festive meal, especially at weddings. It is not very frequent in the New Testament as a whole: apart from the Gospels-Acts (Mt = 1; Mk = 2; Lk = 5; Jn = 4; Acts = 0), it appears only in Paul when he admonishes the Christian community about their way of taking the Lord's Supper together (1 Cor 11:20-21), and in Revelation, which speaks of the wedding feast with the Lamb (Rev 19:9.17).

In John, the festive meal appears in two circumstances: the meal with Martha, Mary and Lazarus (12:2), the last meal of Jesus (13:2.4; 22:20). In Mark, reference is made to two meals, that of Herod celebrating his birthday (6:21) and that of the admonition of the scribes (12:39). In Luke, the mention of the festive meal is found in an exhortation of Jesus, when invited to a meal by a Pharisee, not to invite his friends when one is held (14:12), followed by a parable about a man frustrated at not receiving a response when he invites to a large meal (14:16-17.24), and in a copy of Mark's scene in 20:46. In Matthew, this copy is found in 23:6.

In short, we are not dealing with a frequent event. It is a meal of great occasion. But this is what the scribes are looking for.

Noun deipnon in the New Testament
v. 40 people who devour the property of widows and, for appearance, spend long moments in prayer. They will be judged more severely.

Literally: those devouring (katesthiontes) the houses (oikias) of the widows (chērōn) and for pretence (prophasei) long [time] (makra) praying (proseuchomenoi). Those they will receive (lēmpsontai) aboundant judgment (krima)

katesthiontes (devouring) Katesthiontes is the present active participle tense in the masculine plural nominative form of the verb katesthiō. The latter is formed from the preposition kata, which expresses a top down movement, sometimes with a negative and violent connotation, as in the word "catastrophe", and the verb esthiō, which means "to eat". It is usually translated as: to devour. It is very rare in the Gospels: Mt = 0; Mk = 2; Lk = 3; Jn = 1; Acts = 0; 1Jn = 0; 2Jn = 0; 3Jn = 0. Elsewhere in the New Testament, it appears only in Paul (2 Cor 11:20; Gal 5:15) and in the Revelation. In the Gospels, it always has a negative meaning, with the exception of John (2:17) where it is in fact a citation from Scripture.

Elsewhere in Mark (4:4), it is the birds that devour or eat the seed, preventing it from growing. Thus, according to the evangelist, the scribes are profiteers who do not hesitate to rob the poor. This statement is surprising because it does not fit with the general portrait that the evangelists paint of the scribes: they clash with Jesus over points of the law that they interpret literally, or are shocked by Jesus who arrogates to himself privileges reserved for God, not because they are profiteers. Matthew is the one who presents us with a few sentences that go a little in this direction: "On the outside you (scribes and Pharisees) appear to be righteous, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness" (23: 28). Thus, the scribes are not only looking for honors, but also for money. We have here a social criticism that has something universal about it.

Verb katesthiō in the New Testament
oikias (houses) Oikias is the feminine accusative plural of oikia, which means: house, building, household. As one might expect, it is very common: Mt = 25; Mk = 18; Lk = 24; Jn = 5; Acts = 11; 1Jn = 0; 2Jn = 1; 3Jn = 0. But what is peculiar, this feminine word has a masculine synonym, oikos (house, dwelling), which is also frequent: Mt = 10; Mk = 13; Lk = 33; Jn = 5; Acts = 25; 1Jn = 0; 2Jn = 0; 3Jn = 0. As can be seen, at first glance, each evangelist has his preferences: Luke prefers oikos, Matthew and Mark prefer oikia, while John uses them equally. Although the two words seem synonymous, is there a different nuance between the two?

If we take Mark, as an example, while oikia can refer to a house in general or to the set of buildings or an estate, oikos always refers to the home of a specific individual, so that it is often translated as: home.

But the meaning of the word oikia here in v. 40 is unique in the entire Bible: it refers to the totality of a person's possessions and goods, which the house symbolizes; to lose one's house is to lose all that one has.

Nouns oikia et oikos in Mark
chērōn (widows) Chērōn is the genitive feminine plural of chēra, meaning: widow; the noun is derived from the verb chēreuō, meaning: to be deprived of ("For Israel and Juda have not been forsaken (shēreuō) of their God," Jer 51:5; LXX: 28:5). Contrary to what one might think, this word is not so frequent in the Gospels-Acts (Mt = 0; Mk = 3; Lk = 9; Jn = 0; Acts = 3; 1Jn = 0; 2Jn = 0; 3Jn = 0); in Mark, it appears only in the scene of the poor widow in the temple, in Luke in the same scene that he copies from Mark, then in the mention of the prophetess Anna in the infancy narrative, then in the Old Testament citation of the widow of Zarephath and in the resuscitation of the son of the widow of Nain, and finally in the parable of the unwelcome widow; in Acts, there are two scenes: the widows who were cared for by the Christian community, and the widows who play the role of mourners at the death of Dorcas.

Socially speaking, widows are among the poor. This is understandable, because let's not forget that in ancient times women, like children, were minors all their lives, and now "deprived of a husband", they are deprived of a social status as well as financial support.

This is why the widow was advised to return to her father until a son or man was old enough to support her financially: "Then Judah said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, 'Return as a widow to your father, until my son Shelah grows up'" (Gen 38:11; see also Lev 22:13).

The covenant code given by Yahweh to Moses places widows in the same group as strangers and orphans, and asks: "And ye shall not hurt a stranger, nor afflict him; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt. Ye shall hurt no widow or orphan. And if ye should afflict them by ill-treatment, and they should cry aloud to me, I will surely hear their voice." (Ex 22:20-21; see also Deut 10:18; 14:29; 16:11). Even more, farmers were advised not to reap the last sheaf, in order to leave something for widows, orphans and strangers: "When you reap your field, if you forget a sheaf in the field, do not come back to get it. It shall be for the stranger, the fatherless and the widow, that the LORD your God may bless you in all your works" (Deut. 24:19). And there was the tithe of the third year reserved for the Levite, the stranger, the widow and the orphan (Dt 26:12).

Even if widows could be taken care of for humanitarian reasons, the society of the time offered few openings for a second marriage; for example, a priest could not take her as a wife, because she was no longer a virgin, and therefore ranked with divorced women and prostitutes: "He shall take as a wife a woman who is still a virgin. He will not take a widow or a woman who has been put away or profaned by prostitution as a wife; he will only take a virgin from among his own people as a wife" (Lev 21:13-14). (Note that the young Christian community would not also encourage the remarriage of widows; see 1 Cor 7:8; 1 Tim 5:5.9.11, remarriage being permitted only to avoid the worst, i.e. disordered living (1 Cor 7:9; 1 Tim 5:14).

The first Christian communities will take care of widows to ensure them a decent life (see Acts 6: 1).

The reproach that Mark puts into Jesus' mouth is terrible: the scribes devour the goods of the widows, despite their precarious situation; this is the height of ignominy.

Noun chēra in the Gospels-Acts
prophasei (pretence) Prophasei is the feminine dative singular of prophasis, formed from the preposition pro (before), and the noun phasis (report), formed from the verb phēmi (to say, to declare): to put forward a statement or information to support something. It is usually translated as: pretence, pretext, reason, excuse. It is a very rare word in the Gospels-Acts (Mt = 0; Mk = 1; Lk = 1; Jn = 1; Acts = 1; 1Jn = 0; 2Jn = 0; 3Jn = 0), and indeed in all the rest of the New Testament, appearing only in the epistle to the Philippians and the first to the Thessalonians.

The word appears only once in Mark, in our scene, which Luke (20:47) simply copies: the idea is that the scribes are pretending to pray at length, when their hearts are not in it; it is pure hypocrisy. In John (15:22), the word has the meaning of "invalid motive" for the Jews to reject Jesus and his disciples, after Jesus had offered them all his teaching: it is in a way synonymous with bad faith. In Acts (27: 30), it refers to a decoy put forward by the sailors to escape; thus, the idea is to deceive the other. In his letter to the Philippians (1:18), Paul reproaches some for preaching the Gospel not for their true motives, but out of rivalry and intrigue; in his first letter to the Thessalonians (2:15), it is to say that he was always truthful in his preaching of the Gospel and never sought to deceive others.

Thus, a constant emerges in the word prophasis: it describes a spirit of deception, lies, and hypocrisy, in short, of denial of the truth. This is the description of the scribe that Mark puts into Jesus' mouth. And what is tragic about our scene, prayer and religion are used as a springboard for deception.

Noun prophasis in the New Testament
makra (long) Makra is the accusative neuter plural of the adjective makros. This adjective can have the temporal sense of "long", i.e. a long time or a long period, or the local sense of "distant", i.e. a distant region, a distant people. It is little used in the New Testament and appears only in the Gospels-Acts: Mt = 0; Mk = 1; Lk = 3; Jn = 0; Acts = 1; 1Jn = 0; 2Jn = 0; 3Jn = 0.

It is Mark who first uses it in a temporal sense, and only here. Luke copies this passage as it stands in 20:47, then uses this adjective in the local sense to speak of distant countries (15:13; 19:12), then of distant nations (Acts 22:21).

But there is a particular point to be made in Mark: he uses the adjective "long" by itself, without a noun to qualify it. The fact that the adjective is in the neuter plural suggests that he intends to use it as if it were an adverb, and so we must imply "long" or "long times". This concise, somewhat rough and unpolished style is typical of Mark.

The idea is quite clear: the scribes emphasize the time of prayer to show off; there is nothing sincere in their gesture.

Adjective makros in the New Testament
proseuchomenoi (praying) Proseuchomenoi is the middle/passive present participle tense of proseuchomai : to pray. It appears regularly in the Gospels-Acts. Mt = 15; Mk = 10; Lk = 19; Jn = 0; Acts = 16; 1Jn = 0; 2Jn = 0; 3Jn = 0. It is especially Luke who insists on this theme both in his Gospel and in his Acts. On the other hand, it is totally absent from the Johannine tradition. Why is this? One might think that, from John's perspective, Jesus is in constant communion with his Father, so that his whole life is prayer, and prayer is not an activity added to his day.

We cannot mention the verb proseuchomai without also including the noun proseuchē : prayer. It is less frequent than the verb: Mt = 1; Mk = 2; Lk = 3; Jn = 0; Acts = 9; 1Jn = 0; 2Jn = 0; 3Jn = 0. But the same observations apply: it is Luke who insists on this theme, whereas it is totally absent from the Johannine tradition.

What about Mark? First of all, of the 10 occurrences of the verb "to pray", five describe Jesus' action of praying, and this during two types of scenes:

  1. when Luke summarizes a typical day of Jesus ("In the morning, long before daylight, he arose and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed", 1: 35; and "And when he had dismissed them, he went out into the mountains to pray", 6: 46)
  2. when Jesus is in Gethsemane and is confronted with his approaching death ("He went a little farther and fell to the ground and prayed..." 14: 32.35.39)

Thus, according to Mark, Jesus prayed every morning, before sunrise, and often after his day's activity. And each time, he isolated himself, either in a desert place or in the mountains. Gethsemane just reflects what he used to do.

Then Mark presents us with three scenes where Jesus invites his disciples to pray:

  1. Around the fig tree that was dried up on a word of Jesus, the latter gives a teaching on the power of prayer and on the right attitude to pray properly, in a spirit of reconciliation with all (11: 24-25)
  2. In his apocalyptic speech, prayer is used to ask to avoid the worst (13: 18)
  3. Finally, Jesus invites his disciples to accompany him in prayer in Gethsemane (14: 38)

Finally, there is our scene where the scribe prays at length to be seen and admired. This scene is quite unique in the context of prayer in Mark. More importantly, it provides a striking contrast: while Jesus isolates himself to pray, the scribe displays himself publicly; one is sincere and truly praying, the other only wants to be admired and does not really pray.

Let us say a word about the noun "prayer" in Mark. There are only two occurrences, and one of them is a citation from Isaiah 56:7, which speaks of a "house of prayer" ("And he taught them and said to them, 'Is it not written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer'?) The other occurrence is much more interesting. When they were unable to heal a man possessed by a spirit, the disciples asked Jesus for an explanation. He replies: "This kind of thing can only come out through prayer" (9:29). This answer that Mark puts into Jesus' mouth is surprising and seems to come out of nowhere, so much so that Matthew and Luke, who recopy this passage, feel the need to make changes: Matthew eliminates the mention of prayer and replaces it with faith (Mt 17:20), while Luke amputates this final phrase to avoid insisting on the failure of the disciples (Lk 9:43).

Thus, Mark is not like Luke who makes prayer one of his favorite themes, but in his own way, in a concise and direct way, he affirms that prayer is for him a fundamental element of Jesus' life and of the Christian life. As for the scribe, he does not really pray.

Verb proseuchomai in the Gospels-Acts

Noun proseuchē in the Gospels-Acts

lēmpsontai (they will receive) Lēmpsontai is the future middle indicative tense of lambanō. This verb is part of the common Greek vocabulary and is very frequent in the Gospels-Acts: Mt = 53; Mk = 20; Lk = 21; Jn = 46; Acts = 29. Basically, it means: to take. But "take" can have two dimensions, an active dimension where one seizes something and handles it (15 times in Mark; e.g. 6:41: "Taking (lambanō) then the five loaves and the two fish... "), and a passive dimension where one takes something upon oneself, and thus welcomes and receives it (5 times in Mark; e.g. 10:41: "And likewise those who are sown on the rocky places, are those who, when they have heard the Word, receive (lambanō) it at once with joy").

Here, the verb has the meaning of receiving: receiving a judgment. By the way, what do we receive in Mark?

  • We receive the Word (4: 16)
  • Those who have left everything for the Gospel receive a hundredfold now, in the present time, in houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields, with persecutions, and in the world to come, eternal life (10: 30)
  • We receive what we ask for in prayer (11: 24)
  • The master of a vineyard expects to receive from his servants a share of the fruits of the vineyard (12: 2)
  • The scribes will receive a judgment (12: 40)

In most cases, what is received comes from God: the Word, the hundredfold for commitment to the Gospel, the answer to prayer, and judgment. The very fact of having to receive expresses the absence of control and the openness to what can only be given by another.

Verb lambanō in Mark
krima (judgment) Krima is the neuter accusative singular of krima, which is usually translated as judgment. In fact, krima has two main meanings:
  • the evaluation of something, the discernment, the trial or court where one is called upon to exercise judgment or discernment
  • the pronouncement of the sentence, the conclusion of the trial, and therefore the conviction

When we consider the whole of the New Testament, this is not a very frequent word. For the whole of the Gospels-Acts, we find only seven occurrences (Mt = 1; Mk = 1; Lk = 3; Jn = 1; Acts = 1; 1Jn = 0; 2Jn = 0; 3Jn = 0), twelve in the Pauline tradition, and eight in the other writings. For different authors have preferred its synonym, krisis (e.g., Mt = 12; Mk = 0; Lk = 4; Jn = 11; Acts = 1; 1Jn = 1; 2Jn = 0; 3Jn = 0), which also denotes "judgment," but more often in the sense of "discernment," "trial," and even "exercise of justice."

In the New Testament, out of 27 occurrences of krima 19 refer to sentence and condemnation. And if we look only in the Gospels-Acts, it is four out of seven occurrences that refer to sentence and condemnation.

One thing is remarkable about Mark: the reality of judgment is virtually absent from his Gospel, either in the form of krima or in the form of krisis, except for our passage with the scribes. Let us not forget. The idea that all of our lives and all of our world is subject to a final evaluation by God is typically Jewish: one day, at the end of time, there will be the final intervention of Yahweh as judge of heaven and earth, and thus the good and the wicked will be separated, each receiving an appropriate sentence. It is the Jew Matthew who insists most on this reality: let us recall his scenes on the last judgment (e.g. see 25:31-46). John reuses this idea, but to affirm that this final judgment has already taken place in the person of Jesus: those who believed in him avoided judgment and passed from death to life (5:24), while those who refused him condemned themselves because their deeds were evil.

Luke, writing for a Greek audience, merely takes up briefly from tradition the notion of the day of judgment (10:14; 11:31-32; 20:47), without insisting on it. Mark, probably writing for a Roman audience, offers us only this verse. Yet the phrase he uses seems to be well known in the early Christian community: receiving condemnation (lambanō krima). Let's take a closer look.

  • Mk 12: 40: "These will receive (lambanō) aboundant judgment (krima)"
  • Rom 13:2: "So that he who resists authority rebels against the order established by God. And the rebels will receive (lambanō) judgment (krima) themselves.
  • Jas 3:1: "Do not be many, my brothers, who become teachers. You know that we will only receive (lambanō) a more severe judgment (krima) from them,

Thus, Mark, Paul, and James all use the phrase lambanō krima (receive judgment). What's more, James dares to assert that a scholar, or someone who has had the opportunity to learn and enjoys notoriety as a teacher, will be judged with higher standards by virtue of their very knowledge. Is this not what Jesus says about the scribes? Mark puts into the mouth of Jesus a teaching that could probably be traced back to the historical Jesus, but which applies just as well to the Christians of his community.

But there is more. Don't we find this passage in Ex 22:21-23?

Ye shall hurt no widow or orphan. And if ye should afflict them by ill-treatment, and they should cry aloud to me, I will surely hear their voice. And I will be very angry, and will slay you with the sword, and your wives shall be widows and your children orphans.

Now, mistreating the widow is what the scribes do. They deserve the judgment of God.

Noun krima in the New Testament
v. 41 Later, while sitting in front of the treasure room, he watched the crowd throwing coins into the treasure room. Many rich people were throwing a lot.

Literally: And having sat down (krima) opposite (katenanti) to the treasury (gazophylakiou), he was watching (etheōrei) how (pōs) the crowd (ochlos) cast (ballei) copper [money] (chalkon) into the treasury and many rich (plousioi) were casting much.

kathisas (having sat down) Kathisas is the aorist active participle tense of the verb kathizō (Mt = 8; Mk = 8; Lk = 7; Jn = 3; Acts = 9). The latter has two main meanings: to sit (29) and to remain (6 times). One sits on the floor either to teach (e.g. Jesus sits to teach, Mk 9:35) or for work requiring concentration (e.g. "For who of you, if he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down to calculate the cost...", Lk 14:28, or one sits to write, Lk 16:6); one sits on a seat or throne in the exercise of a judicial function or authority (e.g. James and John ask to sit in a chair or throne in the exercise of a judicial function or authority). James and John ask to sit on the right and left of Jesus in his glory, Mk 10:37); one sits on an animal (e.g. Jesus sits on a donkey, Jn 12:14) or sits in a chariot (e.g. an Ethiopian sits in Philip's chariot, Acts 8:31). In the New Testament as a whole, it is the reference to sitting on a throne that comes up most frequently: in a world where royalty dominates, God and his world are represented in the manner of a royal palace where people sit on thrones.

We have something of this range in Mark. Here, in v. 41, Jesus' gesture of sitting expresses his intention to observe what is going on, a task that requires concentration. Later, his sitting will allow him to offer a teaching to his disciples about what he has observed.

Our scene gives us another example of Mark's talent for storytelling. For he takes great pains to introduce the teaching that follows by showing us a very human aspect of Jesus: the one who takes the time to observe people; for his teaching is rooted in a deep understanding of the human heart.

Verb kathizō in Mark
katenanti (opposite) Katenanti is a very rare adverb: Mt = 1; Mk = 3; Lk = 1; Jn = 0; Acts = 0; 1Jn = 0; 2Jn = 0; 3Jn = 0. Elsewhere in the New Testament, it appears only in Paul (3 times). It means: in front of, before, in the presence of, against. It is an adverb formed from two prepositions: kata (below, against) and anti : in front of. So it's the idea of being in front of someone or something that faces us.

In the Gospels, only Mark uses this word, since Luke and Matthew only copy this passage from Mark where Jesus asks his disciples to go to the village opposite where there is a colt: Mk 11:2 || Lk 19:30 || Mt 21:2. Apart from this passage, the other two occurrences describe the fact that Jesus is facing the temple, here, in front of the temple treasury, and in 13:3, in front of the whole temple building from the slope of the Mount of Olives. One cannot help but feel in these two occurrences a form of distance and opposition, for katenanti also has the meaning of: against.

Preposition katenanti in the New Testament
gazophylakiou (treasury) Gazophylakiou is the neuter genitive singular noun of gazophylakion, a genitive required by katenanti (opposite of). It is a word formed from the Persian gaza (king's treasure) and the Greek phylakeion (place where one holds in custody). It is very rare in the New Testament and is found only in the Gospels: Mt = 0; Mk = 3; Lk = 1; Jn = 1; Acts = 0; 1Jn = 0; 2Jn = 0; 3Jn = 0. To be more precise, only Mark and John use it, because Luke 21:1 only copies Mark 12:41. In Mark it is concentrated in the scene of the poor widow giving everything she has, in John it is a simple reference to the place where Jesus taught in the temple.

In the Gospels, the word refers only to the temple treasury, i.e. the place where people's gifts or offerings were collected, or the tithe. In fact, it refers to two things:

  • The portico adjacent to the treasure room in the women's court, where Jesus taught (Jn 8:20)
  • The offering box (Mk 12:41). This trunk or box would have been called "Corbôna", a simple transcription of the Hebrew and Aramaic word for "offering". This is implied by Epiphanius of Salamis in the 4th c. ("For when he approached the treasury, he saw those who threw in the corbôna, and he did not reprove the gifts of the rich, but even praised the widow who had thrown in the two leptons," Haer. 66: 81), as well as the Apostolic Constitutions of the 3rd and 4th c. ("Throwing what you can into the corbôna, ... one or two or five leptons", 2: 36). Corbôna being incomprehensible to his audience, Mark would have replaced it with "treasure." According to L. Ritmeyer, this would have been a slender trumpet-shaped wooden vase, the inside of the funnel of which was made of bronze so that coins could easily slide into the bottom of the vase; there would have been 13 such vases under the colonnade that surrounded the women's court at the temple (see the temple map, in red the offering vessels), and the sound the coins made when they touched the bottom indicated how much had been poured in (for the context of these offerings, see 2 Kings 12:10: "Then Yehoiada the priest took a chest, and bored a hole in its lid, and set it beside the stele, on the right hand side as one enters the Temple of Yahweh; and the priests who kept watch at the threshold deposited in it all the money delivered to the Temple of Yahweh").

In the Gospels we find another reference to the temple treasury in Mt 27:6 with the word korban: "When the chief priests had collected the money, they said, 'It is not permitted to pay it into the treasure (korban), since it is blood money.'" The word korban comes from the Hebrew: qorbān, which means offering, that which was brought to the temple treasury. In Matthew's scene, the chief priests had taken from the temple offerings (treasury) the 30 pieces of silver that they gave to Judas to betray Jesus, and now they can't put that money back into the treasury, because it was used to kill someone, and therefore it is defiled. In short, the treasure room of the temple was a kind of storehouse for goods and a safe for money. A similar reference is also found in Mark 7:11: "But you say, 'If a man says to his father or mother, "I declare korban (i.e., holy offering) the goods with which I could have assisted you"'; thus, these are goods that were reserved as gifts for the temple treasury.

Since the number of references to gazophylakion is so limited, let's turn to the Old Testament, specifically the Septuagint, that Greek translation of the Hebrew text. There we find 25 occurrences of this word, divided between

  • Ezra A (or 1 Esdras), an apocryphal writing from the second century BC containing Ezra, and parts of the book of Chronicles and Nehemiah,
  • Ezra B containing the books of Ezra and Nehemiah,
  • The book of Maccabees 1, 2 and 4
  • The book of Kings
  • And Esther

Very often gazophylakion refers to the temple treasury, as indicated in this passage from Ezra B 20:38 (Nehemiah 10:38):

And that we may bring to the priests for the treasure (gazophylakion, Heb.: ʾôṣār) of the house of God the first-fruits of our grain, and of the fruit of our trees, and of the wine, and of the oil; and to the Levites the tithes of our land, and that the Levites may receive tithes in all the cities of the land which we cultivate.

What do we learn? First, the translator of the Septuagint sometimes chose gazophylakion to translate the Hebrew ʾôṣār, אוֹצָר (treasure, storehouse, warehouse). Secondly, this temple storehouse was used to store wheat, fruit, wine and oil as well as the tithe that the pious people brought (for the location of this room, see the temple map).

Unfortunately, ʾôṣār does not refer only to the temple treasury, but can have a general meaning: "May the Lord open to you his priceless treasure (Heb.: ʾôṣār, Greek: thēsauros), heaven, to give rain to your fields in due season..." (Deut 28:12). The same is true of gazophylakion, which does not refer only to the temple treasury. The most interesting example is given to us by 1 Maccabees 3:28-39:

and he (Antiochus) opened his treasure (gazophylakion), gave the army a year's pay, and commanded them to be ready for anything. But he saw that money was lacking in his treasures (thēsauros), and that the tributes of the land were small, because of the troubles and evils which he had done in the country, by taking away the laws which he had possessed from the ancient days.

Thus, we see two things: gazophylakion refers to the treasure of Antiochus, not that of the temple, then gazophylakion and thēsauros (treasure, casket, precious object, valuable, sum of money) are used synonymously. And this also applies to the designation of the temple treasure where either gazophylakion or thēsauros can be used, as the following example shows:

And on that day they instituted keepers of the treasures (Greek: gazophylakion, Heb.: niškah) for the treasures (thēsauros, Heb. ʾôṣār), firstfruits and tithes, and men to collect them in the cities, and they were chosen from among the priests and Levites (Ezra B 22:44)

What to conclude? In the Old Testament, there is no technical term for the treasure chamber of the Jerusalem temple. Often ʾôṣār (treasure, storehouse, warehouse) was used, but liškah (chamber, small room, room), or niškah (chamber, hall) could also be used. The Septuagint translated these terms either as gazophylakion or thēsauros. In the New Testament, two terms refer to it, first gazophylakion (treasure or treasure room), but also korban (sacred offering). Thus, the temple treasure can refer to three things:

  • The secure room where goods and money donated by pious people were stored
  • The portico adjacent to this room
  • And the trumpet-shaped vases under the portico of the women's court to collect the silver donations
Noun gazophylakion in the Bible

etheōrei (he was watching) Etheōrei is the active imperfect indicative tense of the verb theōreō, which means: to look at, observe, examine, contemplate. It is quite common in the Gospel-Acts, especially in the Johannine tradition (Mt = 2; Mk = 7; Lk = 7; Jn = 24; Acts = 14; 1Jn = 1; 2Jn = 0; 3Jn = 0), where it often has the particular meaning of knowing, and knowing with a look of faith.

In Mark, two meanings dominate: that of looking or seeing (the unclean spirits see Jesus, the people see the demoniac, Jesus sees the crowd), that of observing or noticing (Jesus observes the crowd, the women at Calvary observe from a distance, Mary of Magdala observes where the body of Jesus has been placed, the women at the tomb observe that the stone has been rolled away)

Here, in v. 41, Mark presents us with a Jesus who sits down to make a study of people's morals, a work of observation. Note the imperfect or past continuous tense, a tense that means that the action is unfinished, that it is ongoing. For him, Jesus took the time to know the human being in all its depth.

Verb theōreō in Mark
pōs (how) Pōs is an adverb that means: how, how much. It is quite common in the Gospels-Acts: Mt = 14; Mk = 14; Lk = 16; Jn = 20; Acts = 9; 1Jn = 1; 2Jn = 0; 3Jn = 0. Even though it is a fairly common word, it is worth mentioning because of the way Mark uses it.
  • When pōs is in the mouth of Jesus or is about Jesus, it always introduces a statement or situation that needs to be understood and properly interpreted
    • The interpretation of 1 Sam 21:2-7 to justify the harvesting of the ears of wheat on the Sabbath (2:26)
    • The interpretation of Jesus' gesture of expelling Satan (3: 23; 5: 16)
    • The understanding of the kingdom of God (4: 13.30)
    • The interpretation of the Scripture on the suffering servant of God (9: 12)
    • Understanding the obstacle of wealth in entering the kingdom of God (10:23-24)
    • The interpretation of the scene of the burning bush (12:26)
    • The interpretation of Psalm 110 (12: 35)
    • The understanding of the gesture of the people who donate to the temple in Jerusalem

  • When pōs refers to the enemies of Jesus, it always concerns the tactic or strategy to kill him (11: 18; 14: 1.11)

Here, in v. 41, pōs describes Jesus' effort to understand all these people who are going to deposit coins in the various trunks in the women's court at the temple.

Adverb pōs in Mark
ochlos (crowd) Ochlos is a name for crowd or multitude. If there is one constant in all the Gospels, it is the presence of a crowd around Jesus and John the Baptist. For John the Baptist, this fact is also reported by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (see e.g. Jewish Antiquities, 18, 5, #116-118: "People had gathered around him, for they were greatly exalted on hearing him speak. Herod feared that such persuasiveness would cause a revolt, as the crowd seemed ready to follow this man's advice in everything"). Unfortunately, for Jesus, the Jewish historian remains silent. But Mark and John, two independent traditions, agree that Jesus gathered crowds who wanted to listen to him and see the signs he was doing. The use of the word ochlos appears only in the Gospels-Acts throughout the New Testament, except for four occurrences in Revelation: Mt = 50; Mk = 38; Lk = 41; Jn = 20; Acts = 22.

Mark, like the other Gospels, has the crowd play three different roles: they play a positive role (33 times) when they move to listen to Jesus or be healed by him, even though their numbers can be cumbersome; they play a negative role (3 times) at the trial of Jesus, when excited by the chief priests, the crowd prefers Barabbas to Jesus to be released; they play a neutral role (2 times) when they don't have to take a stand for or against Jesus, when they go up to Pilate to ask for the usual grace of releasing a prisoner or in our scene around the temple treasury.

Thus, in v. 41, we have a rare instance where the crowd is totally neutral, only the object of Jesus' observation.

Noun ochlos in the New Testament
ballei (cast) Ballei is the present indicative tense of the verb ballō. It means first: to throw, from which derives: to cast, to place, to drop, to put, to lay down. It appears only in the Gospels-Acts, with the exception of Revelation, and a passage in the epistle of James and the first of John. Mt = 33; Mk = 17; Lk = 18; Jn = 17; Acts = 5; 1Jn = 1; 2Jn = 0; 3Jn = 0.

In Mark, ballō conveys the panoply of possible meanings of the word.

  • First of all, it means to deposit, or to put one thing in another: wine is put in a wineskin (2: 22), the child is deposited or laid on his bed (7: 30), Jesus deposits his fingers in the ears of a deaf man (7: 33), money is deposited in the temple treasury (12: 41-44)
  • It also means to throw in order to eliminate something or someone: a dumb spirit throws a child into the fire to destroy him (9: 22), to make someone stumble is so terrible that it is better to be thrown into the sea (9: 42), because it implies to be thrown later into hell (9: 45.47)
  • Finally, it has the meaning of casting or scattering: the sower scatters his seed into the ground (4, 26), the bread is scattered for the little dogs (7: 27), the dice are cast for a random selection (15: 24)

Note that of the 17 occurrences of the word in Mark, seven are found in our scene to describe the gesture of depositing in the temple's coinage; without this scene, we would have to admit that it is a word little used by Mark.

One last point is worth mentioning: the verb ballō is in the present tense. Here we have a feature of Mark's style. Quite often, the Gospels begin a scene by writing: at that time Jesus went on his way or began to say..., with a verb to translate the historical past. But Mark, like a good storyteller, likes to use a present tense to make the scene closer to us, more alive, as if we were witnessing the event in real time.

Verb ballō in Mark
chalkon (copper) Chalkon is the masculine accusative singular of chalkos. The noun means first: copper, but also copper with its alloys, such as bronze and brass, and by extension a bronze coin of the Greek system worth 1/48th of a drachma, the smallest division of that coin, or about the wage for 15 minutes of work for an agricultural day laborer of the time (on the subject, see the Glossary). It is very rare in the New Testament, appearing only in Mark (2 times), in Matthew who simply copies Mark, and then in Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians and in Revelation. But it is only in the Gospel that chalkon refers to Greek money, for elsewhere in the New Testament and throughout the Old Testament it is a reference to bronze or brass objects.

Here, in v. 41, Mark refers to this smallest division of Greek money, worth about the wage for 15 minutes of work for an agricultural day laborer of the time. Two observations can be made:

  • Although two monetary systems were in use in occupied Palestine, the Greek and the Roman, it was the Greek system that the temple in Jerusalem used: for example, the annual tax due to the temple by every male Jew had to be paid in Greek currency, the didrachma or double drachma (i.e. two denarii in the Roman system)
  • When casting copper into the temple treasury, people were in fact throwing away the smallest change they have in their pockets

Noun chalkos in the New Testament

Glossary on currency in the Bible

plousioi (rich) Plousioi is the adjective plousios in the masculine plural nominative, but it is an adjective used as a noun, i.e. the expression: rich person is implied. If it were not for Luke, this word would not be very frequent in the Gospels-Acts: Mt = 3; Mk = 2; Lk = 11; Jn = 0; Acts = 0; 1Jn = 0; 2Jn = 0; 3Jn = 0. This analysis cannot be complete without adding the noun "wealth", in Greek: ploutos (Mt = 1; Mk = 1; Lc = 1; Jn = 0; Ac = 0; 1Jn = 0; 2Jn = 0; 3Jn = 0), and the verb get rich, in Greek plouteō (Mt = 0; Mk = 0; Lc = 2; Jn = 0; Ac = 0; 1Jn = 0; 2Jn = 0; 3Jn = 0); whether for plousios, ploutos, or plouteō, it will have been noticed that these words are entirely absent from the Johannine tradition.

In the Gospels, we can divide the texts on wealth into two groups, those where being rich is a hindrance to entering the kingdom and their attitude is seen in a negative way (15 times), and those where being rich is seen in a neutral way, and even positive (6 times).

A negative view of the rich

  • In the speech of Jesus on the plain: "Woe to you, rich people" (Lk 6: 24)
  • In the parable of the rich man who seeks to get more and more (Lk 12:16)
  • In the parable of the rich man and the poor Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31)
  • In the story of the man who is asked by Jesus to follow him, but refuses because he has great possessions (Mk 10:17-25 || Lk 18:18-27 || Mt 19:16-24)
  • In the parable of the sower where the riches choke the Word (Mk 4:19 || Lk 8:14 || 13:22)
  • In the hymn put into Mary's mouth where God sends the rich away empty-handed (Lk 1:53)

A neutral or even positive view of the rich

  • In Jesus' exhortation not to invite the rich neighbors to eat, for they will return the favor (Lk 14:12)
  • In the parable of the rich man who has a steward who squanders his goods (Lk 16:1)
  • In the story of Zacchaeus, a tax collector (Lk 19:2)
  • In the story of the rich people who put a lot of small coins in the temple treasury (Mk 12:41 || Lk 21:1)
  • In the story about Joseph of Arimathea, whom Matthew presents to us as a rich man (Mt 27:57; on this point see Brown)

In v. 41, Mark presents us with rich people in a rather neutral way: they give away a lot of their small change that they find in the bottom of their purse. This mention prepares for what is to come. For the rich people give away only their small change, while the poor widow who follows will give away what is essential to her.

Adjective plousios in the Gospels-Acts

Noun ploutos in the Gospels-Acts

Verb plouteō in the Gospels-Acts

v. 42 When a poor widow presented herself, she threw two leptons, which is ten minutes' pay for a laborer of the day.

Literally: And having come one poor (ptōchē) widow, she cast two leptons (lepta) which is a quadrans (kodrantēs).

ptōchē (poor) Ptōchē is the adjective ptōchos in the feminine nominative singular, and means: beggar, poor, someone who huddles. As with the passages on wealth, Luke again makes the most reference to "poor": Mt = 5; Mk = 5; Lk = 10; Jn = 4; Acts = 0; 1Jn = 0; 2Jn = 0; 3Jn = 0. Note that no Gospel refers to the word "poverty" (ptōcheia), or the verb "to be poor" (ptōcheuō).

One may be surprised to find that the perspective of the Gospels on the poor varies. In fact, there are two perspectives: one in which the existence of the poor is noted, but they are not the object of special attention in God's plan; a second perspective in which they are considered God's privileged ones and the object of the Gospel.

Perspective where we simply note their existence

  • This is the perspective found in Mark, in John and in Matthew's own texts
  • When Jesus asks a man to give his possessions to the poor in order to follow him, the emphasis is not on special attention to the poor, but on the freedom necessary to be able to follow him (Mk 10:21 || Lk 18:22 || Mt 19:21
  • In the scene of the widow who gives everything she has in the temple treasury, the emphasis is on the significance of her gesture, not on God's special attention to her (Mk 12:42 || Lk 21:3)
  • In the scene of the Bethany woman pouring on Jesus an expensive perfume, the idea that this money should have been given to the poor simply reflects the social customs of the time (Mk 14:5-7; Mt 26:9-11; Jn 12:5-8).
  • When Zacchaeus undertakes to give half of his possessions to the poor, the emphasis is on his conversion, since he was rich (Lk 19:8)
  • And it is quite remarkable that Matthew modifies what he receives from the Q Document in his discourse on the mountain, so that the expression: "Blessed are you the poor" (see Lk 6:20), becomes under his pen: "Blessed are the poor in spirit" (or those who have a poor soul) (Mt 5:3)

A perspective in which the poor are the privileged ones of God and the object of the Gospel

  • This perspective is found only in Luke and in the Q Document (the common source of Luke and Matthew)
  • In his inaugural speech, Jesus presents his mission as bringing the good news to the poor (Lk 4:18)
  • In Luke's discourses in the plains, Jesus clearly states that the kingdom of God is for the poor (Lk 6:20)
  • For the Q Document, the fact that the good news is announced to the poor is the sign that Jesus is the Messiah (Lk 7, 22 || Mt 11, 5)
  • Jesus exhorts to invite the poor to his table, and tells the parable of a man, disappointed to see his guests decline his invitation, inviting the poor to his table
  • In the parable of the poor Lazarus and the rich man, there is a reversal of the situation in the other life, so that it is now Lazarus who has the privilege of a happy life, carried by the angels, consoled on the bosom of Abraham

The richness of Jesus' teaching allows each evangelist to select from it what can nourish his community according to his particular situation. Mark's community, probably the Christian community in Rome, does not seem to have any issues around wealth or poverty. And so Mark, as a pastor, is not particularly interested. The more pressing issue is the prospect of dying in persecution. It is in this context that Mark introduces us to this poor woman who gives all she has to live, and who is ultimately her own life. We will give a little more detail in what follows.

Adjective ptōchos in the Gospels-Acts
lepta (leptons) Lepta is the neuter accusative plural of leptos, which is primarily an adjective meaning: thin, small. This is the only meaning found in the Old Testament, e.g. Gen 41:3: LXX "After these, there came out of the river seven other cows, ugly and thin (gr: leptos, heb.: daq), which began to graze beside the others on the bank." In the New Testament it is used as a name, and it refers only to the smallest coin in the Roman system, made of bronze (0.06 ounce). It represented 1/128 of a denarius, or about the value of five minutes of work for an agricultural day laborer. It was therefore an insignificant and paltry sum (on the lepton and its comparison with other coins of the time, see the glossary).

Thus, by giving two leptons, this widow puts the equivalent of 10 minutes of work for a day laborer of the time. This gives an idea of her poverty.

Noun leptos in the New Testament

The Glossary on currency in the Bible

ho estin (which is) The expression ho estin is formed from the relative pronoun hos (that which) in the neuter nominative singular and the verb eimi (to be) in the present indicative singular. This is a very ordinary expression, except that it is used a lot by Mark, much more than the other evangelists: Mt = 2; Mk = 9; Lk = 0; Jn = 1; Acts = 2; 1Jn = 1; 2Jn = 0; 3Jn = 0.

It is worth noting that Mark, in his pastoral effort, tries to translate for his Roman audience realities of the Palestinian world that it does not know. For example, he has to explain what the Preparation among the Jews is, i.e., the day before the Sabbath (15:42), or why Jesus is brought inside Pilate's palace, for that is where the Praetorium is (15:22), or what the value of two leptons, i.e., a quarter of an ace, is (12:42). Then he introduces his explanation with ho estin (what is), i.e. what means or what signifies.

Moreover, as a good storyteller, he likes to capture the attention of his audience by using words or expressions that might have seemed exotic to his audience, such as Boanergès (3, 17), Talitha koum (5, 41), korban (7, 11), Ephphatha (7, 34), Golgotha (15, 22), Elôï, Elôï, lema sabachthani (15, 34). Also, after using them, he hastens to add: ho estin (which is, which means, which is translated as).

Expression ho estin in the Gospels-Acts
kodrantēs (quadrans) The Greek word kodrantēs comes from the Latin quadrans, i.e., a quarter, and refers to a quarter of an ace, a Roman coin worth 1/16th of a denarius; thus, a quarter of an ace is equivalent to 1/64th of a denarius. On the quadrans, we will refer to the glossary.

What is important to note here is that Mark takes the trouble to translate for his Roman audience the value of the two leptons: these, belonging to the Greek monetary system, could appear exotic to his audience. Thus, knowing now that the widow put into the temple treasury the equivalent of 1/64th of a denarius, the denarius being the standard for a day's wage, this audience could grasp the paltry value cast into the temple treasury.

Noun kodrantēs in the New Testament

The glossary on the currency in the Bible

v. 43 And having then called his disciples, he said to them, "Truly, I assure you, this widow, who is poor, has cast more than all those who have thrown into the treasure room.

Literally: And having call to himself (proskalesamenos) the disciples (mathētas) of him he said to them, "Amen (amēn), I say to you, that this poor widow she cast more (pleion) than all who were casting towards the treasury.

proskalesamenos (having call) Proskalesamenos is the verb proskaleō in the aorist middle participle tense, nominative masculine singular form. This verb is formed from the preposition pros (to) and the verb kaleō (to call, to summon), and thus literally means: to call to oneself. It appears a few times in the Gospels, except in John: Mt = 6; Mk = 9; Lk = 4; Jn = 0; Acts = 10; 1Jn = 0; 2Jn = 0; 3Jn = 0. It can be said that this verb belongs mainly to Mark, because in the six occurrences in Mt, four are simply a copy of Mark.

What is special about Mark is that eight times out of nine it is Jesus who calls. And when he calls, it is either to give an important teaching (with the expression "call and say") or to make a solemn gesture.

An important lesson

  • To the scribes, Jesus demonstrates that he cannot be sent by Satan, otherwise Satan would be divided against himself (3: 23)
  • To the crowd he teaches that no food is unclean (7: 14)
  • To his disciples, he teaches how to feed the crowd (8: 1)
  • To the crowd and his disciples he teaches what it means to be a disciple (8: 34)
  • To his disciples, he teaches them to distance themselves from the methods of the great ones of this world and to opt for the attitude of a servant (10: 42)
  • He teaches his disciples to interpret the human heart (12: 43)

A solemn gesture

  • He calls his disciples to establish the group of the Twelve (3: 13)
  • He calls the Twelve to send them on mission (6: 7)

Here, in v. 43, Mark wants to present us with a Jesus who is about to give a teaching: after denouncing the attitude of the scribes focused on appearances and their reputation, he now contrasts it with the attitude of the poor widow who has given everything she has, an attitude that they will have to follow, an attitude that will be his on the cross.

Verb proskaleō in Mark
mathētas (disciples) Mathētas is the masculine noun mathētēs in the accusative plural. It means: to be a disciple or a student or a learner; it refers to someone who listens to a teacher. As one can imagine, the word is very frequent in the Gospels-Acts: Mt = 72; Mk = 46; Lk = 37; Jn = 78; Acts = 28; 1Jn = 0; 2Jn = 0; 3Jn = 0. They can be the disciples of Jesus, of John or even those of the Pharisees (Mk 2:18)

The question has been asked: is the word "disciple" the work of the early Christian community that referred to the members of the community in this way, or does it really reflect how people named all those who attached themselves to Jesus during his preaching? After his analysis, J.P. Meier concludes that this term really belongs to the time of Jesus, since the early Christians instead abandoned this term to define themselves. Moreover, among those who considered Jesus a teacher, three different groups of people can be distinguished,

  1. First, the small group of those who physically accompanied him on the road, leaving work, family and home,
  2. Those who welcomed him into their homes, offering him room and board and money when he visited their region,
  3. Finally, the crowd of onlookers who listened to his preaching and expressed a form of interest.

It should be noted that although several women are mentioned, none of them is given the title of disciple, probably because of the culture of the time.

What about Mark? The first point to make is that he involves the disciples at the very beginning of Jesus' ministry, as soon as he starts teaching.

After John was delivered up, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the Gospel of God and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent, and believe in the Gospel". As he passed by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew, Simon's brother, throwing the hawk into the sea; for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, "Come after me and I will make you fishers of men." (1, 14-17)

Yet the group of Twelve is not formalized until much later in 3:13-14, although nine times he has already referred to the disciples. Mark's intention is clear: Jesus' ministry cannot be conceived without his disciples, with whom he is closely associated. And for his Christian community, the message is equally clear: in this ministry of Jesus, they must see themselves.

There is a second point to be made in Mark's role for the disciples: they are the object of special teaching by Jesus. This idea is introduced with the teaching in parables when Mark writes: "and he did not speak to them without a parable, but in particular he explained everything to his disciples" (4:34); thus, they are privileged to gain a deeper understanding of Jesus' teaching. This theme continues throughout the Gospel, introduced by the words: "When he had gone into the house away from the crowd" (7:17; see also 9:28; 10:10); at the house Jesus takes time to explain what he has just said. Similarly, throughout the Gospel, Mark refers to the fact that "Jesus was teaching his disciples" (9:31), that he calls them to teach them (8:1, 34; 10:42; 12:43).

All this provides the context for our story with the poor widow where Jesus calls his disciples to give his teaching. Not only does he enlighten them on his way of seeing things, but he prepares them for what they will have to experience themselves.

Noun mathētēs in Mark
amēn (truly)
The term amēn recurs regularly in the Gospels, except in Luke: Mt = 31; Mk = 13; Lk = 5; Jn = 50; Acts = 0; 1Jn = 0; 2Jn = 0; 3Jn = 0. It has already been analyzed in the glossary and we will refer to it. Let it suffice to remind us that the term comes from the Hebrew ʾāman, whose root ‘mn refers to that which is solid and firm (Ps 89:53 "Blessed be Yahweh forever! Amen! Amen!"). This final "amen" was translated by the Septuagint as genoito (let it happen, let it be so), from the verb ginomai (to happen, to arise). The verb, for its part, describes the idea of that which is solid, stable, and therefore reliable, as we see in Gen 15:6: "Abram trusted (hé'émin) in Yahweh, who counted it to him as justice." The presence of amēn in the New Testament is explained by two sources: the language of Jesus, and its use in the synagogue liturgy, when Jewish Christians continued to attend the synagogue.

By introducing the word amēn into his Gospel, Mark is not only continuing his tendency as a good storyteller to introduce exotic terms, but he is especially seeking to give a certain value and solemnity to what Jesus is about to assert and, at the same time, is an appeal to take him at his word. In the 13 occurrences of the word in Mark, eleven refer to a future event. And in the two occurrences that are focused on the present, Jesus addresses only his disciples: whoever does not welcome the Kingdom as a child will not enter it (10:15); the widow who cast two coins in the treasury of the temple gave more than all the others (12:43). These two cases concern a fundamental attitude of the human heart which Jesus discerns in people and which he emphasizes.

Word amēn in Mark
pleion (more) Pleion is the neuter accusative singular of pleiōn, the comparative adjective of polus (many, much). It means: more. This is the only case in Mark: Mt = 7; Mk = 1; Lk = 9; Jn = 5; Acts = 19; 1Jn = 0; 2Jn = 0; 3Jn = 0. We are not looking at a word from Mark's arsenal. It is simply part of the original story: this poor widow gave more than the rich people, in proportion to what each had.

Adjective pleiōn in the Gospels-Acts
v. 44 Indeed, they have all thrown from their superfluity, while she, from her poverty, has thrown away all she had to live".

Literally: Because all out of what is abounding (perisseuontos) to them they cast, then her out of her poverty (hysterēseōs) all as much as she had she cast her whole (holon) livelihood (bion).

perisseuontos (abounding) Perisseuontos is the verb perisseuō in the present active participle tense, neuter genitive singular form. This verb is infrequent in the Gospels-Acts: Mt = 2; Mk = 5; Lk = 2; Jn = 1; Acts = 0; 1Jn = 0; 2Jn = 0; 3Jn = 0. From its root "to be in aboundance", it can have three main meanings.
  • Very often, it means "to have surplus". For example, in the scene of the feeding of the crowd, the people eat their fill, then there was a surplus of bread (Mk 8:8; Lk 9:17; Mt 14:20; 15:37; Jn 6:12-13)
  • It also means "to be full" or "overflowing with something". For example, it expresses what overflows from one's heart (Lk 6:45 || Mt 12:34), or people are full of food (Lk 15:17), or are full of riches (Lk 12:15)
  • Finally, sometimes it means "to be greater", "to surpass", "to grow". For example, the righteousness of a disciple of Jesus must surpass that of a scribe (Mt 5:20), or the Christian communities were growing daily (Acts 16:5)

Here, in v. 44, the rich, who give into the temple treasury, draw from their superfluity; they have more than enough to live on, and so what is put into the temple treasury is what they do not need to live on.

Verb perisseuō in the Gospels-Acts
hysterēseōs (poverty) Hysterēseōs is the genitive feminine singular of hysterēsis : deprivation, poverty, neediness, destitution. This is the only instance in the Gospels-Acts (Mt = 0; Mk = 1; Lk = 0; Jn = 0; Acts = 0; 1Jn = 0; 2Jn = 0; 3Jn = 0), and the only other instance in the New Testament is in the epistle to the Philippians. To help us in our analysis, we can include its synonym hysterēma, a neuter noun that means: lack, need, want, insufficiency, deficiency, absence; in the Gospels-Acts, it appears only once in Luke in his version of our scene (Mt = 0; Mk = 0; Lk = 1; Jn = 0; Acts = 0; 1Jn = 0; 2Jn = 0; 3Jn = 0), but is found a few times in the Pauline epistles. Finally, there is the verb hystereō: to lack or be deprived of something, a verb that appears a few times in the Gospels-Acts (Mt = 1; Mk = 1; Lk = 2; Jn = 1; Ac = 0; 1Jn = 0; 2Jn = 0; 3Jn = 0).

All these words point to a situation of lack. But the lack can be located at three different levels.

  • First, there is the lack of physical goods. For example, if Paul insists on a collection for the Christians in Jerusalem, it is because they are living in great poverty (2 Cor 8:14; 9:12); Paul himself has to face the lack of essential goods to live, and must therefore rely on others to provide for his needs (2 Cor 11:9); In the parable of the prodigal son, the latter, after having spent all his wealth, begins to feel deprivation and destitution (Lk 15:14); but there may be cases where what is lacking is not an essential good, like wine (Jn 2:3)

  • There is also the lack of human presence. For example, Paul thanks the Philippians for having sent him Epaphroditus to support him, filling the absence of the community (Phil 2:30); he makes the same remark to the Corinthians who sent him Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicus to fill the absence of the community (1 Cor 16:17)

  • Finally, there is the lack that is at the spiritual level. For example, Jesus tells the man who wants to follow him and has been fulfilling the commandments since childhood that he still lacks one thing, that of freeing himself from his possessions in order to follow Jesus (Mk 10:21; Mt 19:20); Paul wants to see the Thessalonians again in order to complete what is still lacking in their faith (1 Thess 3:10); or again, through his mission, Paul completes in his flesh what is lacking in Christ's sufferings (1:24).

In v. 41, it is indeed a lack of physical possessions that is referred to. Like many widows at the time, this widow was destitute.

Noun hysterēsis in the New Testament

Noun hysterēma in the New Testament

Verb hystereō in the Gospels-Acts

holon (whole) Holon is the masculine accusative singular of the adjective holos, which agrees with the masculine noun that follows: bios. It is a fairly general adjective found frequently in the Gospels-Acts: Mt = 22; Mk = 18; Lk = 17; Jn = 6; Acts = 19; 1Jn = 2; 2Jn = 0; 3Jn = 0. It means: whole, all, entire, complete.

In Mark, holos very often qualifies a geographical region: the reputation of Jesus spreads throughout the whole region of Galilee (1:28,39), the whole city gathers before the door of his house (1:33), Jesus travels throughout the region (6:55), the Gospel is proclaimed to the whole world (14:9). Holos also intends to refer to the whole human being: Mark's Jesus recalls the commandment to love God with one's whole heart, soul, mind, and strength (12:30.33). Similarly, Mark uses holos to signify the totality of a group: it is the whole Sanhedrin that seeks to condemn Jesus (14:55; 15:1), and it is the whole cohort that mocks Jesus (15:16).

Here, in v. 44, it is her whole livelihood that the widow puts into the treasury. In Mark, this is a unique case where holos qualifies a person's means. Yet it is not unique in the Gospels, since Luke has this phrase in the scene he borrows from Mark about the woman who was losing blood: "she had spent here whole (holos) livelihood (bios) on doctors" (Lk 8:43). What to conclude? Mark is probably repeating an account he receives from tradition, because we do not find his familiar vocabulary. Moreover, this account of Mark's widow and Luke's remark puts forward two destitute women, who find themselves ruined.

We'll never know the rest of the story of the widow who gives all her assets to the temple treasury. But it is clear that, for Mark, she has just given everything, everything, everything.

Adjective holos in Mark
bion (livelihood) Bion is the masculine accusative singular of the noun bios. We know the word "bio", because it has given us words like biology or biosphere or biography. Basically, it means: life, not in the sense of animal life, but in the sense of a mode or way of living, from which are derived livelihood, means of subsistence, resources, having, fortune, standard of living. It is rare in the Gospel-Acts, for it appears only once in Mark, in our account of the poor widow who gives all her wealth into the temple treasury, and five times in Luke: Mt = 0; Mk = 1; Lk = 5; Jn = 0; Acts = 0; in Luke, apart from the copy of the story of the poor widow (Lk 21:4), it is found among the obstacles to the word when it is sown (a pleasure-oriented lifestyle, Lk 8:14); in the story of the woman who spent all her wealth on doctors (Lk 8:43), and finally in the story of the prodigal son who squandered his father's inherited wealth (Lk 15:12.30). Thus, bios means either the having or the lifestyle.

It is also infrequently used in the rest of the New Testament, i.e. four times: in the first letter of John, reference is made to the having that comes, not from God, but from the world (2:16), and which is to be shared with those in need (3:17); the first letter to Timothy speaks of a quiet and peaceful style of life to which we are invited (2:2); the second speaks of the usual activities of life (2:4). Thus, again, bios means either having or the style of life, including a style marked by certain activities typical of that life.

What about the Old Testament? The word bios appears 69 times in the Septuagint, if we include both its canonical (Proverbs, Job, Song of Solomon, Ezra A and B) and deuterocanonical (Greek Esther, Wisdom, Sirach, 1 and 2 Maccabees) and apocryphal writings (3 and 4 Maccabees): Pr = 8; Jb = 13; Ct = 1; Esd A = 1; Esd B = 1; Est = 1; Sg = 14; Si = 4; 2M = 7; 3M = 5; 4M = 14.

As we have seen for the New Testament, bios is sometimes used to describe having or needing to live, but this is very uncommon: Prov = 3; Song = 1; Esd B = 1; Sir = 1. For example, Song 8:7: LXX "Much water will not be able to quench love, and rivers shall not drown it; if a man would give all his livelihood (bios, Heb. hôn = wealth) for love, men would utterly despise it."

Similarly, bios refers in half the cases to a lifestyle or the moral dimension of life: Job = 2; Est = 1; Wis = 14; Sir = 2; 2Mac = 2; 3Mac = 2; 4Mac = 11. For example, Wis 2:15: "He is grievous unto us even to behold: for his existence (bios) is not like other men's, his ways are of another fashion."

But bios there also takes on meanings absent from the New Testament. Thus it designates a number of times human existence in general, especially in its precariousness and ephemeral duration: Prov = 5; Job = 11; Sir = 1; 3Mac = 3; 4Mac = 3. In the canonical texts, it often translates the Hebrew yôm (day). For example, Job 9:25: LXX "But my existence (bios, Heb. yôm = day) is swifter than a post: my days have fled away, and they knew it not" In this sense, the word bios has a meaning very close to zōē (life, breath of life). For example, Sir 40:29: "The existence (bios) of him that dependeth on another man's table is not to be counted for a life (zōē); for he polluteth himself with other men's meat: but a wise man well nurtured will beware thereof". And sometimes the Septuagint translator uses bios and zōē virtually synonymously; e.g., Prov 3:2 LXX: "for they (my precepts) will give you a long life (bios), years of life (zōē), and peace (see also Prov 3:16; 4:10).

Finally, there are cases where bios and zōē are outright synonymous, i.e. just as zōē is taken as opposed to death, so losing one's bios is synonymous with dying: 2M = 5; Esd A = 1. E.g., Esd 1:29: LXX "and he rode in his chariot, the second; and when he was brought back to Jerusalem he lost his existence (bios, lit.: he altered his life; the Hebrew has rather: mût , i.e. he died) and was buried in the tomb of his fathers."

What to conclude. The word bios has evolved over time. Whereas it could be virtually synonymous with zōē or denote life in its duration, it came to denote only life in its moral dimension, i.e., the lifestyle and goods that enable living. This is how Mark's account appears in its particularity, while bios designates a person's possessions, a very uncommon meaning. This only emphasizes that we have here, not an echo of Mark's style, but probably that of a tradition he uses.

Noun bios in the Bible
  1. Analysis of the narrative's structure

    The way the liturgy has cut up Mark's text contrasts two opposing actors: the scribes and a poor widow. Both scenes are marked by a teaching of Jesus.

    1. Teaching on the hypocrisy of the scribes

      Introduction: "He said in his teaching: 'Beware of the scribes...'"

      Description of the attitude of the scribes

      1. They seek to be important in society, i.e.
        1. To walk with beautiful robes
        2. To be recognized and greeted in marketplaces
        3. The first seats in the synagogues
        4. The first couches at the table in banquets

      2. In reality
        1. They devour the houses of widows
        2. They pretend to pray for a long time

      Conclusion: God will judge them more severely than others

    2. Teaching on total giving

      1. Description of the scene
        1. Sitting in front of the treasure room, Jesus observes people making donations
        2. Rich people deposit a lot of small currencies
        3. A poor widow casts two leptons

      2. Teaching to the disciples
        1. Introduction: Jesus calls his disciples
        2. Statement: The widow gave more than all the others
        3. Explanation: the others gave from their superfluity, the widow gave what she needed to live

    This structure highlights the opposition between the attitude of the scribes and that of the poor widow. These two opposing attitudes are the subject of Jesus' teaching, an attitude to be avoided, an attitude to be admired, even imitated.

    In the attitude of the scribes denounced by Jesus, there seem to be two points: on the one hand, the scribes are only looking for their own person, which they want to show off, and on the other hand, they are only hypocrites, because what they are doing is bad: they are taking the goods of the vulnerable people, the widows, and they are projecting the false image of praying beings, while the whole thing is only a show.

    In the attitude of the widow highlighted by Jesus, there is the authentic expression of the gesture of giving, which goes as far as giving all that one has, with the risk of dying.

  2. Context Analysis

    Let us proceed in two steps, first by considering a possible plan of the whole Gospel and observing where our passage fits into this grand plan, then by considering the immediate context of our story, i.e. what precedes and what follows.

    1. Context of the whole Gospel according to Mark

      There are several ways of grouping the various sections of the Gospel. We propose one which has the advantage of taking up the words of the evangelist expressed by his first words: "Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of God". Thus, our plan is divided into two large parts, each of which takes up the two titles attributed to Jesus: Christ and Son of God; and each of its parts ends with the recognition of this title, first Peter who recognizes in Jesus the Christ (end of the first part), then the centurion who recognizes in Jesus the Son of God (end of the second part). We use the word "mystery" for each of these parts, because Mark's Gospel is a long journey to gradually discover the identity of Jesus.

      The mystery of Christ (messiah) 1: 1 – 8: 30

      • Invitation to conversion by John the Baptist (1: 2-8)
      • Baptism of Jesus and his election by God (1: 9-13)

      1: 1 – 1: 13
      Jesus and the people
      • Proclamation of the Kingdom of God (1: 14-15)
      • Choice of the first disciples (1: 16-20)
      • A typical day of Jesus (1: 21-39)
      • Multiple healings and disputes, and decision of the Pharisees to kill him (1: 40 – 3: 6)

      1: 14 – 3: 6
      Jesus and his family
      • Summary of Jesus' activity (3: 7-12)
      • Institution of the Twelve (3: 13-19)
      • Dispute about the source of Jesus' power (3: 20-30)
      • The true parentage of Jesus (3: 31-35)
      • Teaching in parables (4: 1-34)
      • Various miracle stories (4: 35 – 5: 43)
      • Conclusion: His own people do not believe in Jesus (6: 1-6)

      3: 7 – 6: 6
      Jesus and his disciples
      • Sending the Twelve on mission (6: 7-13)
      • Herod and the death of John the Baptist (6: 14-29)
      • Section on bread (6: 30 – ; 8: 21)
        • 1st feeding of the crowd (6: 30-41)
        • Walking on the waters (6: 45-52)
        • Summary of the healings of Jesus (6: 53-56)
        • Dispute with the Pharisees (7: 1-23)
        • Faith of the Syro-Phoenician woman and healing (7: 24-30)
        • 2nd feeding of the crowd (8: 1-10)
        • Refusal of the signs and blindness of the disciples (8: 11-21)
      • Healing of a blind man (8: 22-26)
      • Peter recognizes in Jesus the Christ (8: 27-30)

      6: 7 – 8: 30
      "You are the Christ (messiah)" (8: 29)

      The mystery of the son of man (8: 31 – 16: 8)

      The way of the son of man
      • 1st announcement of his death (8: 31-33)
        • Teaching on discipleship (8: 34-38)
        • Anticipation of death: the transfiguration (9: 1-13)
        • Healing of a possessed child (9: 14-29)
      • 2nd announcement of his death (9: 30-32)
        • Teaching on living together: learning to be the last, welcoming children, avoiding to be a stumbling block to believers, God's plan for marriage, leaving everything to follow Jesus (9: 33 – 10: 31)
      • 3rd announcement of his death (10: 32-34)
        • Teaching on the servant attitude of the disciple (10: 35: 45)
      • Healing of a blind man and the way to Jerusalem (10: 46-52)

      8: 31 – 10: 52
      Judgment of Jerusalem
      • Triumphal entry into Jerusalem (11: 1-11)
      • Judgment in deed and word (11: 12-26)
        • The barren fig tree (11: 12-14)
        • The sellers driven out of the temple (11: 15-19)
        • Teaching about the barren fig tree (11: 20-26)
      • Five disputes (11: 27 – 12: 44)
        • On the authority of Jesus (11: 27 – 12: 12)
        • On the tax due to Caesar (12: 13-17)
        • On the resurrection of the dead (12: 18-27)
        • On the first commandment (12: 28-34)
        • On Psalm 110 (12:35-37)
      • Final teaching: warning and the true gift (12: 38-44)
      • Apocalyptic Discourse on the Ruin of the Temple (13: 1-37)

      11: 1 – 13: 37
      Passion and resurrection
      • Introduction (14: 1-2)
      • The anointing of Bethany (14: 3-9)
      • Betrayal of Judas (14: 10-11)
      • The Passover meal (14:12-31)
      • Gethsemane and the arrest of Jesus (14: 32-52)
      • The trial before the Sanhedrin (14: 53-72)
      • The trial before Pilate (15: 1-20)
      • The crucifixion and death of Jesus (15: 21-41)

      14: 1 – 16: 8
      "This man was truly son of God!" (15: 39)

      • The burial (15: 42-47)
      • The women at the tomb (16: 1-8)

      Non-Marcan addition by an author who knows the Gospel of Luke: Mk 16: 9-20

      In the context of this whole Gospel of Mark, we can make some observations about pericope 12:38-44.

      • This pericope belongs to the second part of the Gospel where the prospect of Jesus' death is looming, Jesus having already made the third announcement of his death
      • Jesus meets more and more opposition expressed by the various disputes where he is trapped
      • Our pericope begins with a warning against the scribes, which is not surprising in the context where Jesus and the Jewish elite are in opposition
      • The story of the poor widow that follows may be surprising, but less so if you consider that:
        • The word "widow" appeared in Jesus' warning against the scribes, and as usual, Mark likes sequences of hook words
        • The poor woman has given everything, and Jesus is about to give everything with his approaching death

    2. Immediate Context

      The immediate context that precedes begins in 12:35, when Mark writes, "And answering, Jesus taught in the temple." Incidentally, it is from 11:27 that Jesus has been teaching in the temple where he is confronted by the chief priests, scribes and elders. But in 12:34, we learn that, seeing Jesus' wise answers, his opponents no longer dare to question him.

      When he is no longer dared to be questioned, it is Jesus who goes on the attack, taking the scribes to task, first in their exegesis of Scripture on the Messiah as son of David (12:35-37), then in their hypocritical attitude (12:38-40). If the opponents have disappeared, who is his audience? According to 12:47 ("The large crowd listened to him with pleasure"), the crowd is his audience, which is open to what he says about the scribes. But with the story of the poor widow, the audience changes: it is only the disciples that Jesus addresses.

      The immediate context that follows our pericope initiates a new section on the destruction of the temple. This creates a curious situation: the poor widow gives away everything she has in the temple fund, yet the temple is destined to disappear; thus, the focus should be on the meaning of her gesture, not the results.

      It may be noted that the account of the scribes' exegesis of Psalm 110, the warning against the scribes' hypocrisy, the account of the poor widow, and the apocalyptic discourse announcing the destruction of the temple form a heterogeneous whole; Mark finds himself bringing together scattered material and it would be surprising if, historically speaking, events had closely followed this sequence. What is important for us to emphasize is Mark's intention to put them together by using hooks like scribe, widow and temple: the mention of the scribes' exegesis introduces the warning against the hypocrisy of the scribes who devour the widows' property, the mention of the widows in the rebuke of hypocrisy introduces the scene of the widow, and the mention of the temple treasury in the widow's story introduces the announcement of its destruction. And for Mark, the whole thing forms a coherent whole: it allows him to contrast two fundamental attitudes, the one represented by the scribes, the one represented by the widow, who is in fact that of Jesus; one is called to disappear, the other to rise up.

    3. Parallels

      Recall that, according to the most accepted theory in the biblical world, Mark would have been the first to publish his Gospel, Matthew and Luke would have reused much of Mark's work in their Gospel, while incorporating another source, known to both of them and referred to as the "Q source," as well as other sources of their own, and finally John would have published an independent Gospel at a later date, with no knowledge of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, even though he seems to have had access to similar sources.

      In this context, the study of parallels allows us to better identify what is specific to each evangelist. Here is our convention: we have underlined the passages of Mark taken up by one or more of the other evangelists; we have put in blue what is common to Matthew and Luke only.

      Mark 12Matthew 23Luke 20Luke 11
      38a And in the teaching of him he was saying, 1b And saying to his disciples,45a he said to his disciples,46a Then, him, he said,
      38b look away from the scribes 2 the scribes and the Pharisees have sat down on Moses' seat.46a hold on from the scribes46b to you also the lawyers, woe,
       3 Therefore do and observe all things that they might say to you. Then, do not do after their works. For they say and they do not do.  
       4 Then, they bind heavy burdens [and oppressive] and put them on the shoulders of men. Then, themselves, they do not want to move them with their fingers. 46c that you load the men with burdens oppressive and yourselves you do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers.
       5 Then, all their works they do in order to be seen by men. For they broaden their phylacteries and enlarge their tassels.  
      38c those wanting to walk in robes and greetings in the marketplaces 39 and first seats in the synagogues and first places in the banquets,6 Then, they love the first places in the banquets, and the first seats in the synagogue 7 and greetings in the marketplaces and to be called by men: Rabbi46c those wanting to walk in robes and loving greetings in the marketplaces, and first seats in the synagogues and first places in the banquets.[43 Woe to you Pharisees that you love the first seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces]
      40 those devouring the houses of the widows and for pretence long [time] praying. Those they will receive aboundant judgment. 47 who devour the house of the widows and for pretence long [time] they pray. Those they will receive aboundant judgment. 
      41 And having sat down opposite to the treasury, he was watching how the crowd cast copper (money) into the treasury and many rich were casting much.  21, 1 Then having look up he saw the ones casting their gift into the treasury, rich (people). 
      42 And having come one poor widow, she cast two leptons which is a quadrans. 2 Then he saw a certain needy widow casting there two leptons. 
      43 And having call to himself the disciples of him he said to them, "Amen, I say to you, that this poor widow she cast more than all who were casting towards the treasury. 3 And he said, "Truly, I say to you, that this poor widow she cast more than all. 
      44 Because all out of what is abounding to them they cast, then her out of her poverty all as much as she had she cast her whole livelihood." 4 Because all those (people) out of what is abounding to them they cast towards the gifts (box), then her out of her poverty all the livelihood that she had she cast" 

      We can make a number of observations from these parallels.

      • Let us first consider the warnings at the beginning. Matthew's text has passages similar to Mark's, and others similar to Luke's, underlined in blue, while Luke offers us two sets of texts (ch. 20 and 11) with parallels to Matthew and Mark. What does this mean? The warnings against the scribes (or lawyers) would come from two sources, one reflected by Mark, the other being the Q Document known by Luke and Matthew. Matthew opted for an integration of the two sources into a single narrative, Luke kept them somewhat separate, his chapter 11 reflecting the Q Document, his chapter 20 reflecting what he received from Mark. M.E. Boismard, (Synopse des Quatre évangiles en français. Paris: Cerf, 1977, v. 2) proposes a much more complex theory in which the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke had an early version which he calls Mark-intermediate, Matthew-intermediate, and proto-Luke).

      • The Q Document, as in Matthew, insists on the ostentatious attitude of the scribes and Pharisees who wore phylacteries on their foreheads, i.e., this box with a small parchment containing passages of the law, and bangs at the bottom of their garments to remind them of the commandments: their aim was to show themselves to be the most religious of the Jews. Luke, in ch. 11 which takes up this Q Document, seems to have deliberately omitted this passage. Why? The allusion to the phylacteries and bangs must surely have been incomprehensible to his Greek audience. It is possible that the story of the loose clothing in Mark is a way of reiterating the phylactery story that was incomprehensible outside the Jewish world.

      • The Q Document and Mark's agree on two attitudes among the scribes: the search for the first places in the synagogues and the greetings in the marketplace. But Mark's source not only amplifies the search for first places by adding the first couches in the banquets, which Matthew ignores (unless he only knew the intermediate Mark, which did not have this note), but also directs us to the hypocrisy of the scribes who seek money from widows and pretend to be pious. This orientation is different from that of the Q Document, which continues on the scribes' desire to be important by calling themselves "Rabbi."

      • It will have been noted that Matthew and Luke both replace the verb "to want" of Mark (v. 38c: "those wanting to walk in robes"), with the verb "to love" (in Mt, v. 6 "they love", in Lk 20, 46b "loving greetings"). Since Matthew and Luke, in principle, did not know each other, how can this coincidence be explained? One could answer that Luke, having already used the verb "to want" just before, opts for a synonym which, by chance, is the same verb used by Matthew for the whole verse. Boismard (p. 355) opts for a more complex theory in which Luke would use the proto-Luke as a source, and the proto-Luke is derived from the Matthew-intermediate, and since the Matthew-intermediate had the verb "to love," this verb is found in both Matthew and Luke.

      • As for the episode of the poor widow, Luke makes changes to the account he receives from Mark.

        • First of all, in accordance with the noble image he wants to keep of Jesus, he does not need to sit down to examine the situation, but immediately he can see what is happening
        • To Mark's verb "to watch" (theomai), he prefers his familiar verbs: "to look up" (anablepō), "to see" (horaō)
        • He eliminates words not commonly used in his community, such as chalkos (bronze coinage) or "quarter ace." These terms are replaced by a generic word: gift (dōron)
        • To Mark's Hebrew term: amēn (it is true), he prefers the Greek term alēthōs (truly)
        • Finally, he lightens Mark's rather heavy style: "he was watching how the crowd cast copper (money) into the treasury and many rich were casting much" becomes under his pen: "he saw the ones casting their gift into the treasury, rich (people)"; then, "I say to you, that this poor widow she cast more than all who were casting towards the treasury." becomes under his pen "I say to you, that this poor widow she cast more than all", finding without doubt that the repetition of "all who were casting towards the treasury" was in a way redundant.

      On the whole, two things should be remembered: in his retelling of the tradition about the shortcomings of the scribes, Mark avoids things that are too Jewish, such as those concerning the phylacteries and the bangs on the garments; on the other hand, as a good counter who wants to capture the imagination, he likes to give a certain number of concrete details, such as the copper coins that the rich put into the temple treasury, or the clarification that two leptons were equivalent to a quarter of an ace.

    4. Intention of the author when writing this passage

      Most biblical scholars agree that Mark's Gospel was published before the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70, because the author seems to be unaware of this event, and so we tend to place this publication around the year 67. According to tradition and by the type of reader that the Gospel assumes, Mark addresses first of all the Christian community in Rome. Now, this community was to experience tragic events under the reign of Nero from 54 to 68, in particular during the burning of Rome in 64, for which they were made the scapegoats. On the subject, the Roman historian Tacitus (Annals, 15, 44) writes:

      But no human means, no imperial largesse, no expiatory ceremonies silenced the public outcry that accused Nero of having ordered the burning. To appease these rumors, he offered other culprits, and made a class of men, hated for their abominations and called Christians, suffer the most refined tortures. This name comes from Christ, who, under Tiberius, was delivered to the torture by the procurator Pontius Pilatus. Suppressed for a moment, this execrable superstition overflowed again, not only in Judea, where it had its source, but in Rome itself, where all that the world encloses of infamies and horrors flocked and found supporters. Those who confessed their sect were first seized, and, on their revelations, an infinite number of others, who were convinced not so much of arson as of hatred for the human race. Some were covered with animal skins and devoured by dogs; others died on crosses, or were smeared with inflammable substances, and when the day was over, they were burned in place of torches. Nero lent his gardens for this spectacle, and at the same time gave games in the Circus, where he sometimes mingled with the people in the clothes of a coachman, and sometimes drove a chariot. Also, although these men were guilty and had deserved the last rigors, the hearts opened with compassion, while thinking that it was not with the public good, but with the cruelty of only one, that they were immolated.

      This context is important for understanding Mark's Gospel: it is a Gospel that is addressed to a community that is torn apart, that does not understand that the one in whom they put their faith, and whom they believe to have risen from the dead, did not intervene to save them from persecution, suffering and death. This is why Mark, as pastor of this community, tries to introduce them progressively to the mystery of life that must pass through suffering and death, a path first traced by their master. Mark's Gospel has something dark and tragic in its plan: all of Jesus' ministry takes place in Galilee, but this ministry is in some sense a preparation before he sets out for Jerusalem where he will be condemned to death; there is in some sense only one road, the road to Calvary.

      Remember that a Gospel is not a diary of Jesus' activities, so it is not possible to establish a chronology of what happened during those two and a half years of his ministry. According to John, Jesus went to Jerusalem several times. According to Mark, he went there only once to die: this is not a "historical" plan, it is a "theological" plan, where after having made known the power of God's reign at work in his action and teaching to all the people and having associated his disciples with it, he accepts to face suffering and death. Our pericope about the scribes and the poor widow comes at a time when Jesus has already announced three times the suffering and death that await him, at a time when, after a series of disputes with the religious authorities, ties are cut with them. Only people from the crowd and his disciples are there to listen to him.

      As we have been reminded a few times, Mark is a good storyteller. Not having known Jesus directly, he nevertheless seems to have a wealth of written and oral traditions. According to tradition, he knew Peter. But what is he doing here in this section of verses 38-44? He has at hand a tradition in which Jesus is said to have denounced the attitude of the scholars of the time, who were also biblical scholars, people who had many social pretensions and considered themselves apart from others, who wore various religious signs to display their piety, but all of this was at odds with what they were doing: there was no sincerity in what they were doing, and even at the limit they could be swindlers. It is possible that this tradition reflects several interventions of Jesus during his ministry. In any case, Mark decided to take up this tradition and insert it at the point where, in his narrative, the bridges are cut with the religious authorities, as a form of conclusion and judgment against them. Through the crowd listening to Jesus in the temple forecourt, Mark sees the Christian community, especially the educated elite, and intends to warn them against a similar attitude of hypocrisy. Jesus will no longer be there to guide them every day. Christians must remember his teaching.

      Mark chose to follow this warning against the scribes with the story of a poor widow who makes an offering in the temple. The language of this story is not Markan colloquial, as we have already mentioned, and is probably not a story he made up. It is not known when this scene might have taken place according to tradition. But Mark chose to insert it just after the warning against the scribes. Why did he do this? It has already been pointed out that the hook word "widow" may have played a role, because the previous story was about the scribes devouring the houses of the widows. But there is certainly more to it than that, for this is the last scene before the long apocalyptic discourse and the actual account of his trial and death. Moreover, Jesus takes the trouble to have his disciples come to him to offer a teaching: he intends to deliver a fundamental message, not a little moral lesson.

      First of all, the scene of the hypocritical scribes, who enrich themselves at the expense of the widows, and that of the widow, who gives all she has to live on, must be read together, as a striking contrast; there can be no greater antithesis, no more opposite ways. And just as Jesus passed judgment on the hypocritical elite, he also passes judgment on the widow: she has given the greatest gift possible. In this construction of Mark, there is an invitation to follow the widow's path. And for the community in Rome that has lost everything in the persecution, there is the consolation of knowing that they have chosen the widow's path.

      But there is still something more profound. For this scene with the widow comes shortly before the whole story of Jesus' trial and death. Mark, as a fine storyteller, likes characters who embody various aspects of Jesus' life and that of the Christian community. For example, in Jericho, the blind Bartimaeus, who finally sees clearly and decides to follow Jesus on the road to Jerusalem, thus the road to death, represents this Christian community which, with the eyes of faith, is able to follow its master on this difficult road. Now, this widow who is able to strip herself of everything, even what is necessary to live, represents both the path of Jesus who accepts to strip himself of everything, including his own life, and who will be represented by a naked body on the cross, and the path of the Christians of Rome who will be disinherited and killed. Mark's approach to his persecuted community is not to soften the edges, but to make sense of what they have to go through. And finding that meaning will enable this community to face events.

    5. Current situations or events in which we could read this text

      1. Suggestions from the different symbols in the story

        • The places of honor. There are few people who can remain indifferent to anything that honors them, to underline their importance; we all need to feel important. But what price are we willing to pay for it? Doesn't this have a perverse effect?

        • The long moments of prayer. Religious behaviors are ambiguous: sometimes they are sincere, sometimes they are false pretenses. How can we distinguish between them? What makes an attitude sincere, or hypocritical?

        • The donations that people make. There are many motivations for giving. And the meaning of giving can vary by amount, and by the personal wealth of individuals. What does the act of giving mean in a profound way?

        • A widow who gives everything she has to live. On the face of it, this is completely crazy. But do you know of any other similar examples? Why would a person do such a thing?

      2. Current situations or events in which we could read this text

        The challenge here is to consider how an evangelical passage can shed light on events such as these:

        • The news came as a bombshell. In the summer of 2018, a 900-page report accused religious leaders in the Diocese of Philadelphia of covering up more than a thousand cases of sexual abuse by a hundred priests on more than a thousand minors. Doesn't this come close to the scribes who claim to be the most religious of men, but at the same time do wrong?

        • Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, considered a populist politician, has barely been elected when a judge in the state of Minas Gerais ordered the eviction of 450 families who had been working on land that had been abandoned for two decades by its owners. Is it not discouraging to see how little concern there is for the poorest? Does the Gospel offer a glimmer of hope?

        • Devastating fires are still ravaging California. This time, the consequences are much more disastrous, and the number of deaths high. Many people have lost everything. How should we react to these events? Doesn't the Gospel offer a way of life?

        • The assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Arabian embassy has caused a lot of publicity. But it is not new for a state to order the assassination of a troublesome individual. The United States has done it, Israel has done it. And isn't this the motivation for eliminating Jesus that Caiaphas proposes: "It is in your interest that one man die for the people and that the whole nation not perish" (Jn 11:50). Is there a different moral code for an individual and for a state? Does the Gospel have nothing to say on the subject?

        • A 13 year old girl has just taken her own life. Another suicide. She was gifted at school. But her anxiety was generalized, she suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder, with difficulty bonding with children her age. And the health care system was not able to handle her properly. Why a world with so many disabilities? Why so much suffering? In his journey, Jesus was certainly aware of such a situation. What was his answer?


    -André Gilbert, Gatineau, November 2018