Up to now in all the stories we have been reading through Lent, people have come to Jesus to ask either selfish questions such as the Rich Young Man or questions that were hard-hearted and designed to trick Jesus. At the beginning of this week’s passage we have got a genuine question and Jesus answers it authentically without any speech or parable. Yet, of course, it is not quite as simple as that.
The greatest commandment is certainly to love God, but Jesus, without hesitation, slides onto the second greatest which he says is to love neighbour. Therefore, the care of others and the love of neighbour with all the practical response that this entails has become, in a single breath, more important that everything else including all religious obligations. This is no small rebalance of faith and it is made all the more significant as Jesus is standing in the courts of the temple while he says it.
As an aside it is interesting to recognise that Jesus remarks how close the Scribe is to the Kingdom of God for this is the week when the confrontation between Jesus and the religious authorities reaches its peak, yet it is one of those who becomes his enemy who is closest to the Kingdom! Jesus is not out to get a whole group of people but rather to highlight particular behaviours regardless of the group from which that behaviour emanates.
Yet Jesus then goes on to denounce the scribes for ‘devouring widow’s houses’. In other words the Scribes’ lives impoverish others and bankrupt widows because of the tax the temple charges them. As he says this, there in front of them all is one of those very widows, bankrupt because of the charges the temple sanctions yet she is giving her last two coins as an offering. So the story is perhaps less to do with lifting up the widow’s generosity and far more to do with condemning those who take what she gives without thinking of where or who it comes from. The Scribes are condemned for the pursuit of what they have before having any compassion towards those around them.
In times of austerity it is easy to become more scribe-like and fend for self and be less generous towards others when the real lesson in times of austerity (for the widow lives within just such a time for herself) is to be generous towards those things that matter. Austerity does not mean to cut back on those whose needs are greater but to recognise we are here for each other and to respond as such. The Scribes did not recognise that. The widow, in some way, did, for she gave fully to the temple which was meant to care for others.