Preying Power Structures

The readings for Sunday, November 8, 2015, Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time,
Cycle B, are 1 Kings 17:10-16; Hebrews 9:24-28; and Mark 12:38-44.

Jesus and his disciples had walked the main road from Jericho up to Jerusalem accompanied by crowds of pilgrims from Galilee. The grand entry into Jerusalem had taken place. The temple became the center of Jesus’ activities for the next few days. First however Jesus as the prophet of God enacted a prophetic sign. As he came into the city, he approached a fig tree to see if it had borne fruit. There was nothing on it but foliage. But Jesus cursed the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” Then he proceeded to his passionate invasion of the temple. Later we learn that the fig tree withered. The cursing of the fig was the first symbol of the end of the temple. The mysterious ripping of the veil of the temple at the death of Jesus completed Jesus’ prophetic action. The temple was doomed.

Such was the background to the gospel of this Sunday. The problem was not really the temple structure. Even more troublesome for the realization of the kingdom of God on earth were the groups for whom the temple was the center of power. Jesus encounters them in various confrontations and overwhelms them with his logic. When he asks them a question, they are unable to answer. The tension between Jesus and the power structure continues to rise. As our gospel reading for this Sunday begins, Jesus attacks the scribes, the experts in Torah, experts in interpreting the laws of the ancient Torah. They were the lawyers for the people in power. Their own power led them to acquire the perks of office. It should be understood that Jesus is not attacking all scribes, but only those who abused their position. Just before his denunciation of scribes Jesus complimented one of them, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

The denunciation: Mark writes, “In his teaching he said, ‘Beware of the scribes who like to walk around in long robes, and to have salutations in the market places, and the seats of honor in the synagogues, and places of honor at banquets.’” This was a public attack on wayward scholars, just as Jesus had earlier publicly attacked business operations in the outer court of the temple. One could excuse these scribes for a bit of human vanity, but when they used their learning for unjust gain, either for themselves or for wealthy clients, they lost their moral compass. The Marcan Jesus continues, “They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext recite long prayers. They will receive a severe condemnation.”

Abuses perpetrated by experts in the laws of the Torah had a long history reaching all the way back to the eighth century B.C. Isaiah 10:1-2, “Woe (a curse upon) those who decree unjust decrees, the writers who keep writing oppression.” What oppression were they writing in the time of Isaiah of Jerusalem? “To turn aside the needy from justice, and to rob the poor of their right, that widows may be their spoil, and that they may make the fatherless their prey.” Jeremiah 8:8, sixth century B.C., fiercely denounces defrauding scribes,

Mark was composing his gospel either during or soon after the destruction of the temple by the Roman army in 70 A.D. He struggles with the fact that Jerusalem and the temple were not only sacred places but for many early Christians the temple was still the place to worship God. Why did this tragedy, the destruction of the temple, happen? One of Mark’s answers is the rejection of Jesus by the hierarchy of the temple and those who kept them in power. In his denunciation of scribes the Marcan Jesus referred to scribes “who devour the houses of widows….” He needs an example to illustrate this part of the denunciation.

Jesus sat down in the outer court of the temple. There were thirteen trumpet-shaped chests to receive offerings. Jesus watched people drop money into these chests. Rich people, with some fanfare, dropped in large sums. “A poor widow dropped in two copper coins which make a penny.” Jesus said to his disciples, “This poor widow has put in more than all of them…. They gave out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had, her whole living.” The temple and those who falsely interpreted the Torah therefore became a symbol of taking all from those who have little or nothing. Immediately after this Mark adds Jesus’ devastating, prophetic oracles of the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem. It is a chilling thought to recall that Mark is here instructing Christians about power structures preying on the poor and the defenseless.