This coming Sunday is the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time of Year B in the lectionary cycle. Lurking in the background of our reading is the first-century Jewish system of levirate marriages (Gen 38 and Deut 25:5-10). In short, if a man dies without leaving a son, his widow is forbidden to marry outside his family. One of her deceased husband’s brothers must assume the duty of the levir, taking her as his wife. The first male of this second union is considered the son of the deceased brother.
It is clear from rabbinic discussions in the Mishna and other Jewish texts that rabbis valued the system of levirate marriage. Some scholars believe it was a valued institution because it protected the widow and helped compensate the family for the loss it sustained. Others think the rabbis supported the levirate marriage as a socially constructive institution. Society allowed a young woman only two proper roles. She is either an unmarried virgin in her father’s house or a faithful, child-producing wife in her husband’s or her husband’s family’s home. Through the levirate, society avoids having a young childless widow. The levirate not only continues the line of the deceased, it reaffirms the young widow’s place in the home of her husband’s family.
In other words, there is one scholarly view that this woman is truly a widow without a husband or children – and outside the levirate tradition – and outside the norms of societal support. She is described as a “poor widow.” She was poor because she was a widow. It may well be that the sociology and economics in first-century Palestine did not have room for a rich widow. Women were highly (if not totally) dependent on their male relatives for their livelihood. To be widowed meant not only losing someone you may have loved, but more tragically, it also meant that you were losing the one on whom you were totally dependent. Widows were forced to live off of the good graces of other male relatives and anyone in the community who might provide food, shelter, and income.
“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 12:43-44)