Mark 12: 38–44
The Scribes mentioned in today’s gospel were not a religious sect, as were the Pharisees and Sadducees. They were simply men who knew how to read and write—a distinct minority in those days. Illiterate people depended on them for help in preparing documents, such as contracts, and this gave them considerable power and prestige in the community. But it also tempted them to become proud and to consider themselves above the laws that govern ordinary people.
It is important to note that Jesus does not condemn them because they are more learned than most. They deserve condemnation only because their pride leads them to unjust behavior. Being able to control judicial processes enabled them to defraud vulnerable people, such as widows.
In the second half of the gospel passage, we note a contrast between the heartless Scribes, who prey on widows, and a poor widow who puts them to shame because of her generosity. Her “widow’s mite” is proportionately far more generous than larger and ostentatious gifts given out of abundance. Others give from their surplus, while she gives from her livelihood. Nor does she seek in any way to advertise her piety.
In our world, knowledge is so readily available that we often do not realize what a precious possession it is. There is real power in knowledge and this kind of power, like power in general, can be very corrupting. Such abuse of knowledge occurs when it leads to pride, to odious comparisons with less favored persons, and even to abuses, such as sharp dealings and other forms of injustice. We know also how easy it is for the more learned to take advantage of the naive and vulnerable ones. Such “white collar crime” is rarely punished adequately … but God knows who is guilty.
On the other hand, knowledge can be used in very helpful and positive ways. Good teachers have a precious opportunity to deliver people from the very real bondage of ignorance. I know from personal experience how gratifying it is to see a listless student begin suddenly to grasp the importance of learning and then to blossom into one who becomes hungry for knowledge. This is truly like finding a treasure in a field, which leads to profound gratitude on the part of a student empowered in this way to explore a world of wonderful opportunities.
Wealth is even more obviously a form of power. It can be abused through avarice and greed, but it can also provide a wonderful opportunity for service. The generosity of wealthy persons can liberate less-fortunate ones from the bondage of misery and insecurity. Investing in the poor is a most wise and provident use of one’s resources.
The Scribes had some knowledge and wealth, but that was of little value to them in the end. The simple, poor widow turned out to have chosen the path to supreme knowledge and wealth beyond measure.
Demetrius R. Dumm, O.S.B.
Image: James Tissot (French, 1836-1902). The Widow’s Mite (Le denier de la veuve), 1886-1894.