The women of Holy Week have always fascinated me. Apart from a passing glance at the foot of the cross, the church ignores them. It doesn’t help that The Revised Commentary Lectionary places some of their stories outside of Holy Week, and rips them out of their theological context.
When I did my own study of the women of Holy Week, I was surprised to find the first woman mentioned in Holy Week was the widow who gave her last two pennies as an offering in the Temple. I never connected her story with Holy Week, and for good reason: before her story is a list of controversies and debates Jesus was having with the religious leaders in the Temple. After her story, Jesus described the destruction of the Temple and what would happen before his second coming. Big stories with lots of drama are on either side of this humble, generous widow.
Jesus sat down across from the treasury and watched the crowd throw money into the treasury. Many who were rich threw in large amounts. A widow who was poor came and threw in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. He called his disciples and said, “Believe me when I say that this widow who was poor gave more than all those who are contributing to the treasury because they all gave out of their abundance, but she, poor as she is, gave everything she had – all she had to live on” (Mark 12:41-44, New Testament: Divine Feminine Version [DFV]).
This happened right after Jesus finished criticizing religious leaders who “devour widows’ houses and show off with long prayers” (v. 40). Normally stewardship campaigns praise this woman as a person who gave unselfishly to God. She trusted God would provide. But that interpretation does this woman a great disservice.
Elizabeth Struthers Malbon notes: “The poor widow is unlike the self-centered scribes and instead like Jesus–one who gives all. The last words of her story could well be translated ‘but she from her need cast in all of whatever she had, her whole life.’ Perhaps we are to assume that the poor widow has been victimized by the greedy scribes and by the authority of traditional religious teaching. But in this again she is like Jesus, who teaches with ‘authority, and not as the scribes’ (1:22), yet is victimized by those who hold authority in the temple and in the broader religious tradition” (Women in Scripture, 432).
Jesus’ praise of this woman–who lived her life the same way he called his disciples to live–is the last thing Jesus said before he left the Temple for the last time. Her offering of everything she had foreshadows Jesus’ own offering of his life on the cross. We praise this woman for pointing the way to Christ and for living the same kind of life, that Jesus himself lived: an all-encompassing sacrifice to God. The stewardship campaigns need to tell her full story instead of simply praising her for giving her last two cents.
After Jesus praised this woman and left the Temple, he described the future destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. In chapter 14 we discover this end of times discourse nestled between two stories of women and their Christlike generosity. In Mark 14:1-11 we meet the woman who anointed Jesus as king and prepared him for his death and burial. This happened the day before he celebrated the Last Supper (for her story see my sermon, Anointing the King).
Once again Mark contrasts the thoughts and actions of corrupt religious men with the Christlike actions of a woman:
When he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the house of Simon who had leprosy, a woman approached him with an alabaster jar of very expensive ointment made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured it over his head. But some got angry. “Why has this ointment been wasted?” they said to one another. “This ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to those who are poor.” They scolded her.
But Jesus said, “Leave her alone! Why are you bugging her? She has done a good deed for me. You will always have people who are poor with you, and you can help them whenever you want to; but you won’t always have me. She did what she could. She poured this ointment on my body to prepare me for burial. Believe me when I say that wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what this woman has done will be talked about in memory of her” (Mark 14:3-9, DFV).
This is the first scene in Mark’s passion narrative. This woman who acted as a prophet (or priest) and anointed Jesus as king began Jesus’ journey to the cross. Like the widow, we see another selfless act of generosity. As the people in the Temple ignored the widow, Jesus’ fellow dinner guests criticized this woman’s offering as wasteful. Jesus rebuked the critics and praised the woman for preparing him for his burial. Jesus knew his road to kingship led to the cross, and he promised this prophet would be remembered wherever the Gospel is preached.
The First Two Women of Holy Week
In comparing these two women Malbon notes: “One woman gives what little she has, two copper coins; the other gives a great deal, ointment of pure nard worth more than three hundred denarii; but each gift is symbolically or metaphorically priceless. The irony that the poor widow’s gift occurs in the doomed temple is matched by the irony that the anointing of Jesus Christ, Jesus Messiah, Jesus the anointed one, takes place not in the temple but in a leper’s house (14:3), and not at the hands of the high priest but at the hands of an unnamed woman” (Women in Scripture, 433).
The widow and the prophet close Jesus’ public ministry in Mark and begin his journey to the cross. They foreshadow Jesus’ coming death. They also live the life of sacrificial faith that Jesus will live through his arrest, crucifixion, and death. These two women won’t be the last women we meet this Holy Week. In Mark, stories of women surround the entire Passion Narrative: The prophet who anointed Jesus opens the Passion Narrative and the women who stood vigil at the tomb close the narrative. The women who followed Jesus embraced him in this narrative as he lived through his betrayal, arrest, denial, and death on the cross. They obeyed him, and they did not forsake him.
How will we follow these women’s Christlike examples through Holy Week? What do the widow and the prophet have to teach us about living Christlike lives?
The second part of this series, The Women at the Cross and Tomb, will be posted on Wednesday.