Jesus once sat in the temple, people-watching. He saw a widow come up to the donation box and drop in two small coins worth a penny. He commended her to his disciples as an example for them: unlike the rich who give out of their spare change, she “from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had, even what she needed to live on” (Mark 12:44, CEB).
A haunting phrase: she gave everything she had, even what she needed to live on.
Her children or grandchildren should have stopped her! We would call them negligent today, if they let their old widowed grandmother – with her compromised judgment and her wingnut piety – put her Social Security check wholesale into the offering plate.
Yet this foolish old woman is an icon, a making concrete of Jesus’s teaching from earlier in the same chapter of Mark’s gospel: to love God with all the heart. Holding nothing back, even that which is dearest; even that which ensures survival.
As such, she reminds of Abraham, who made the long, terrible trek to Mount Moriah with his son, Isaac. Folly, horror, enigma – but also iconic: also an extreme and enduring picture, of a human holding nothing back from God, even that which is dearest. This widow is his descendant in faith.
Even more importantly, she is an icon of God.
Bad judgment and magic thinking run amok in Mark – even in the case of God. In Jesus’s parable from earlier in the chapter, a landowner planted a vineyard, and rented it out to tenant farmers. But labor relations even in the world of a parable aren’t that great; when the (divine) manager sent a servant to collect the fruit of the vineyard, the tenant farmers beat him up. Then the manager sent another servant – and this one the tenant farmers killed.
Based on this record, the divine manager should have wised up, hired some mediation, agreed to collective bargaining. Instead, “the landowner had one son whom he loved dearly. He sent him last, thinking, They will respect my son” (12:6, CEB). But – unsurprisingly, given the parable to that point, and given all Mark’s hints about the death of God’s dearly loved Son – the laborers killed him and threw him out of the vineyard.
The parable is odd in several ways. It makes a targeted point and doesn’t map well onto any systematic theological grid – Jesus’s death, for example, is figured in this parable as an unforeseen tragedy and not (as elsewhere in Mark) a divinely purposed calling. There is also the parable’s violent ending and its (potential) supercessionism.
But another of the parable’s oddities is the poor judgment of the landowner, who thinks far too highly of the tenant farmers. He should have held back that which was dearest to him. But instead, somehow – foolishly – he looked past the laborers’ aggressions and trusted them. He is an irresponsible dotard, headed for hurting – like the old woman. And they both are pictures of a foolish God: who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all (Romans 8:32).
This same God had long before jeopardized the divine self for Abraham in Genesis 15: when God commanded Abra(ha)m to take animals and split them in half and lay out the halves facing each other. Then “when the sun had set and darkness had deepened, a smoking vessel with a fiery flame passed between the split open animals” (15:17, CEB). In effect, God made a blood oath. The smoking vessel and fiery flame of God’s presence passed through the split animals, as if to say: to keep my promise, I am willing to risk myself being split in half. Like the widow, holding nothing back, even (in the case of Gen 15) the corporeal integrity that ensures survival.
How different this God of foolish and complete self-commitment is from the gods we – I – tend to imagine.
Gods who hold back.
Gods who are prudent.
Gods who lack commitment.
Gods more concerned with godness than with love.