Readings: Tobit 12:1, 5-15, 20; Tobit 13; Mark 12:38-44
It is usually assumed that Jesus is praising the widow for giving all she has to the Temple. But neither Mark's gospel nor Luke's gospel, each of which records this moment, has Jesus praising her. We find none of the usual words of praise, nothing like 'go and do likewise' or 'I tell you she returned to her home justified', nothing like that.
So why do we assume that Jesus is somehow praising her for what she did? Could it be that we easily align ourselves with the type of religiosity peddled by the Temple system so that we imagine Jesus too as some kind of cleric who is happy to devour widows' houses, to take all they have, and to praise the poor for giving so generously?
If we look at the story in context, whether in Mark or in Luke, we see that the widow serves not so much as an example to follow as she is a warning, an illustration of the kind of corruption Jesus talks about in his criticisms of the Temple system. She is its victim. We know the Temple provoked him to anger when he saw its commercialization. The Father's house of prayer had become a den of thieves. This commercialization, along with the exploitation of ordinary people, and the hypocrisy he points out in the scribes and Pharisees: all combine to create a monstrous religious system which devours widows' houses. Ordinary people, people seeking simply to be faithful, people like those we have met in the Book of Tobit, are seduced into giving away all that they have.
So the widow is a warning rather than an example, an illustration of how corrupt religion can become. The rich can afford to spread their wealth around; the poor are making themselves even poorer in sharing what they have.
If the widow is an example or a type in any sense then it is of Jesus himself that she is an exemplar, a kind of forerunner. Though he was rich he made himself poor, Paul says, so that we who are poor, desperately poor, might become rich. He is the one who will put all he has into the treasury of the Temple, the heavenly Temple, because his treasure is in heaven. He gives up his spirit, putting his whole living into his final great work, allowing himself to be devoured by the powers of evil, sin and death.
His death is not a final sacrifice to some demonic religious system but an assertion of love in the face of all demonic systems, exploitations and hypocrisies. He is of course on the side of the widow for it is widows and orphans who are the particular concern of the Heavenly Father. The most shocking injustice is that perpetrated against widows and orphans, the most vulnerable people in society. Is it any wonder that Jesus is moved to fury when he sees such injustice in the place of prayer, mercy and grace? It is obscene that that place, whose currency ought to be prayer, mercy and grace, has become a place of business, cheating, and lies.
In today's gospel reading we are not, then, being encouraged by Jesus to give all our possessions to religious systems or individuals who will always have far more than poor widows will ever have. We are being warned against something which easily attaches itself to religion. And we are being called to think about the One who contributed all he had, his whole livelihood, not manipulated by demonic forces, whether economic, social or political, but in freedom, out of obedience, because of His love for the Father and for the people.