Those Among Us

This coming Sunday is the 32nd Sunday in Year B of the lectionary cycle. The Gospel is taken from Mark:  In the course of his teaching he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to go around in long robes and accept greetings in the marketplaces,  seats of honor in synagogues, and places of honor at banquets.  They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext, recite lengthy prayers. They will receive a very severe condemnation.’  He sat down opposite the treasury and observed how the crowd put money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums.  A poor widow also came and put in two small coins worth a few cents.  Calling his disciples to himself, he said to them, ‘Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury.  For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.’ (Mark 12:38–44)

The selection for the Gospel readings for the latter part of Ordinary Time (Year B) do not necessarily help readers place the events in a context. From the 24th Sunday up through the 30th Sunday we have read from the core of Mark’s gospel (chapters 8-10). Within those readings we have watched a pattern repeat itself: (a) Jesus predicts his passion, death, and resurrection; (b) the disciples either protest the prediction or seemingly grasp for prestige, places of glory, or authority; and (c) Jesus privately teaches the disciples how the Kingdom will different than their expectations – one must serve, be last, be as a child. All of this is bookended by two miracles stories of healing blindness. We turn the page from Mark 10 to the next Sunday (31st Sunday; Mark 12:28-34) and read about the ‘Greatest Commandment.’ It seems like a natural fit into the pattern of teaching and readying the disciples for their mission after the Resurrection.

What happened to all of Mark 11 and a good chunk of Mark 12? They are not used in the Sunday readings and what we miss is that in Mark 11, Jesus enters Jerusalem on the day we refer to as ‘Palm Sunday.’ The end is very near and one can understand a sense of urgency in what Jesus teaches. The Gospel reading for the 32nd Sunday is the final time that Mark presents Jesus in the Temple.

Here is an outline of text that we do not cover in the sequence of Ordinary Time readings (Sunday’s readings appearing in bold):

The Entry into Jerusalem, 11:1–11
The Unproductive Fig Tree, 11:12–14
The Expulsion of the Merchants from the Temple Precincts, 11:15–19
The Withered Fig Tree, Faith and Prayer, 11:20–25
The Authority of Jesus, 11:27–33
The Parable of the Defiant Tenants, 12:1–1
The Question Concerning Tribute, 12:13–17
The Question Concerning the Resurrection, 12:18–27
The Question Concerning the Great Commandment, 12:28–34
The Question Concerning David’s Son, 12:35–37
The Warning Concerning the Scribes, 12:38–40
The Widow Who Gave Everything, 12:41–44
The Olivet Discourse, 13:1–37  (also referred to as the ‘Little Apocalypse’)

A quick glance at the descriptions shows that many of the passages are controversies in which Jesus confronts the Jerusalem authorities as his life marches inexorably to the Cross.

When our Gospel for the 32nd Sunday stands adrift from the larger context, it is easy to reduce the sense of the reading to ‘bad scribes, who devour the life of the good widows – don’t’ be like them.’ But the reading of the 31st Sunday (the First/Greatest Commandment) should remind us that there was wisdom and goodness among the scribes

The scribe said to him, ‘Well said, teacher. You are right in saying, ‘He is One and there is no other than he.’ And ‘to love him with all your heart, with all your understanding, with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself’ is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.’ And when Jesus saw that [he] answered with understanding, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’’ (Mark 12:32-34)

The gospel description of the scribes who would devour the widow’s life should not be treated as being stereotypical of all scribes in the Jewish community. It describes the rich and powerful at their worst. It describes human behavior in all circles of life [Perkins, 682]

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