That early morning we went up the temple to recite the Passover prayers, according to the custom of our parents. Crossing through the gentiles’ atrium, we reached the Beautiful Gate. Alongside, as always, was a line of beggars and sick people, begging for alms with their raised hands…
A Beggar: For the love of God, please help this poor blind man! God will reward you for this, countrymen. God will reward you for this!
Woman Beggar: Strangers, take a look at my wounds, and have pity on me!
Judas from Scariot was the first to give a couple of coins to the woman showing us her wound-infested legs.
Woman Beggar: May God reward you with long life and good health!
Judas: C’mon, Nathanael, don’t be stingy. Give this poor man something too.
Nathanael: It’s not that, Judas. My heart bleeds everytime I see such misery, but…
Philip: But what? C’mon, Nat, loosen your pocket. We’re in a tight fix too, but these unfortunate ones are worse.
Nathanael: I know, Philip. But that’s not the problem?
Philip: So what’s the problem?
Nathanael: Tell me, what do we solve by giving a couple of coins?
Philip: Less, if we don’t give anything.
Nathanael: To whom shall I give alms, Philip? To this woman with rotten legs, or to that man who is bloated like a frog or to that blind man over there or…?
Another Woman Beggar: For God’s sake, take a look at my wounds and have pity on me!
Philip: Don’t think too much anymore, Nat. Get a dinar and give it to this poor woman, so she can take something hot for her stomach.
Nathanael: Yeah, that’s for today, Philip. What about tomorrow, huh?
Philip: Tomorrow, someone’ll pass by who’ll give her another dinar.
Nathanael: And what if he doesn’t give…?
Philip: Well, what can we do. One……….
Nathanael: We’ll all be sleeping peacefully, while this poor one is dying of hunger.
Philip: Okay, okay. I’m convinced. I’ll give him two dinars…
Nathanael: What about the day after tomorrow, Philip…?
Philip: You go to hell, Nathanael! You can’t even part with your copper and here you are pestering me! I’m not heaven’s treasure-keeper!
Judas: Hey, what’s the matter with you?… Hurry up!
Nathanael: We’re coming, Judas, we’re coming…
We passed through the Beautiful Gate and entered the women’s atrium where the Temple’s treasury was located. There, beneath a small door could be found the bronze chests where we Israelites put in our tithes. Voluntary offerings from people were also collected in these boxes. During the Passover, a number of pilgrims gave alms for the cult and for the maintenance of the Temple. When we got there a rich businessman with a red turban and a pair of silken sandals was dropping a handful of silver coins… one by one in the box.
Rich Man: That our Temple may always shine, as these silver coins, amen!
A Woman: Psst, neighbor! Do you know that man? He’s one of the nephews of the old man, Annas! He lives along the coast and raises cattle for business… Look at his ring! With the price of that ring, he could feed all the poor ones waiting by the gate.
Another Woman: Look at the man beside him… the one who’s dressed like a Greek….!
Woman: Isn’t he the son of the merchant Antonino?
Woman: Exactly. That one is a good man, yes sir.
Woman: A what? Hah! You just don’t know him! That guy treats his horses better than his servants!… What a man!
A Man: So that the altar of God will never run out of incense, amen!
A Woman: Did you hear him? Here, what’s needed is bread to feed the hungry poor!
Another Woman: Shut up woman! How can you say that? I think you’re beginning to lose your faith. I’ve got a feeling this boyfriend of yours is putting strange ideas into your head…
We also gave some donations to the Temple’s treasury…
Philip: What a line!
Judas: I think this’ll take forever and we won’t be able to leave.
Philip: What with this heat! Hey, Nathanael, why don’t you cover your bald head with a piece of cloth?… You might suffer from sunstroke!… But… who’s pulling my hand…? What’s happening here…? Don’t push, dammit, we can’t even move here!… This fellow’s hair is almost in my mouth…! But who the devil is tickling me…?
Nathanael: Philip, it’s this woman who wants to squeeze herself in…
Widow: Let’s see, let me pass, m’son… c’mon, yes, let me pass…
Philip: Hey, old woman, why don’t you fall in line like everybody else, and stop pushing…
A Man: But look at this hag! Who does she think she is?
Widow: Be a good boy, m’son and let me pass, yeah… my grandchildren are waiting for me at home.
A very thin old woman was pushing her way among us. She was probably a widow, as she was dressed in black and her face was covered with a black veil. Unmindful of the protests among us, the woman made her way to the offering box…
A Man: Damn that old woman! She came last but wants to be the first!
A Woman: Well, if she was able to get away with it, at least she could hurry up…!
The widow started to look for her handkerchief where she kept her money…
Widow: Wait a minute, m’son… where did I put my money?
She searched all her pockets, her belt and her chest… but could not find her handkerchief. People were getting impatient.
A Man: Well, grandmother, did you come to give alms or to pray before this chest that they may take pity on you?
A Woman: Hey, you, get that hag out of here! We can’t stay here waiting for her the whole morning.
Widow: But, where did I place my money, m’son?… Could somebody have stolen it from me?… There are so many bad people in the city now, and too many thieves!
A Man: And what can they steal from you, skin and bones? Not even the devil would be interested in you!
Another Man: If you don’t know where the hell you kept your money, you’d better cool it first and come back when you find it!
A Woman: Get that witch out of there!
The voice of protest got more intense. Nevertheless, the widow kept her cool. She continued to look for her handkerchief which she finally found in one of the sleeves of her dress…
Widow: Here it is, here it is. That’s why my father used to say that money that is well kept is sure money.
A Man: Hurry up, old woman, finish it up and go away….!
The widow carefully removed the knot of the handkerchief and there appeared the two copper cents that she wanted to offer…
A Merchant: What a big fuss over two miserable copper coins! Beat it old woman, and don’t stain the Temple’s treasury with your filthy coins!
Widow: What did you say, child? Speak louder, ’cuz I’m a little hard of hearing.
Merchant: Better for you to swallow those filthy coins! We don’t need them here!
Widow: What are you saying, m’son?… One day a grandson of mine swallowed a coin, and his part here got swollen and…
Merchant: Go to hell, damned old woman! You’re testing my patience! Go away, go away!
Widow: But m’son, I…
Merchant: Out of my sight, I say!
The man grabbed the widow by the arm and pushed her outside the door. The two cents rolled onto the floor.
Merchant: Why don’t you stay by the door with the other beggars… that’s where you belong!
But the widow bent to the floor to look for the two cents that fell…
Jesus: Over here, there’s one, grandmother…! Take it.
Widow: Oh, thank you, m’son… With these eyes of mine, I’m as blind as a bat…!
Judas: Here’s the other one!
Widow: Oh, how can I ever thank you!… What good-mannered boys you are!…
Jesus: Save your thanks, grandmother… you’re already out of line. Hey, you, hurry up a little.
The widow went near the offering box, accompanied by Judas and Jesus, who recovered the copper coins for her…
Widow: M’son, let me pass, give me some space…
Merchant: You again?… I told you to stay away from here, you wicked old woman!
Jesus: And why, may I ask, does she have to leave?
Merchant: Because she made me lose my patience!
Jesus: She’s here to give her offering to the Temple, like you and everyone else.
Merchant: She’s here to give the measly amount of two cents, which is worthless, do you hear?
Jesus: Well, look here, this wicked old woman, as you say, is giving more offering than you are…
Merchant: Oh yeah? Don’t tell me that. Do you know how much I’m going to give?
Jesus: No, but I’m sure you give from your plenty, while this poor widow gives what she has to live on. Her offering is more worthy in the eyes of the Lord.
Merchant: You’re a funny man, Galilean! All you can say is in the eyes of God, in the eyes of God!… But don’t forget that the altar curtains and cups, as well as the priests vestments are not paid for by the widow’s cents but with lots of silver and gold.
Judas of Scariot went near the merchant…
Judas: The walls of the temple of God are covered with gold and marble, while God’s children are dying of hunger outside… Don’t you think something is wrong here?
Merchant: I say that’s none of your business. The temple is a holy place and there’s little that’s done to embellish it. God deserves a beautiful place and much, much more.
Jesus: People are the true temple of God. God doesn’t live amid stones, but in the hearts of those who cry out of hunger by the gate.
Merchant: Now look who’s talking! Can’t you show any more respect for religion and sacred things?
A Man: What’s going on here, dammit! First it was the old widow, now it’s you! Will somebody call for a Levite to impose some order here!
At that moment, a priest was passing by the offering boxes…
Priest: What’s this chatter all about, huh? If you have nothing to give as offering, then go somewhere else and don’t make trouble!
Jesus: C’mon, grandma, drop your coins and go home!
Widow: How’s that, m’son?
Jesus: I said, drop your coins and go back home!
Widow: Why, of course… the coins… heavens, where did I put them? …You have given them to me, haven’t you?… Wait a minute, m’son, let me look for them…
Jesus: If you want, don’t drop them here. You may just give them to those beggars by the gate…
Widow: Speak louder, m’son, for I’m deaf and I can’t hear you well.
Jesus: No, you’re not, grandma. We’re the deaf ones who refuse to hear the cry of the many dying of hunger, while the coffers of God’s temple are full.
Priest: Go, go, don’t delay, there are many people waiting!… Praise God for the generous souls who help maintain the temple and the splendor of its sanctuary!
The widow finally found her copper coins and dropped them in the Temple’s treasure chest. Then, slowly, she moved away, as she passed through the street of the weavers and proceeded to her rambling house in barrio Ofel.
In Jesus’ time, Jerusalem was a center of mendicancy. Since almsgiving in Jerusalem was considered specially pleasing to God, this practice all the more encouraged a great number of beggars. They concentrated themselves near the temple, though many of them could not get inside if they were afflicted with diseases which were considered an impediment to be in God’s presence. They were the lepers, the crippled, the insane, etc.
For the Jewish religion, almsgiving was a very important deed. Jesus was not opposed to almsgiving. On the contrary, on various occasions, he spoke of selling one’s own riches so that one could give the money to the poor. (Luke 12:12, 33).
What Jesus frowns upon is the attitude of those who give alms as a show, or to cover up the injustice committed by the employers against their laborers. In the entire ancient world, almsgiving and charity towards the poor were ways of encouraging equality among people. At present, in this economically complex world we live in, almsgiving, charitable works, the so-called “development aid” may be a beautiful smoke screen to cover up the injustices at the roots. When almsgiving becomes a substitute for justice, it must be rejected. When almsgiving stunts the growth of the receiver as a human being, it is not Christian. Acts of charity will always be needed in times of emergency, but if it fails to attack the cause of the structural injustice which explains why there are poor people, this “charitable act” accomplishes nothing but the perpetuation of poverty. This is not the kind of almsgiving that our Lord wants.
Beside the atrium for women was the so-called “treasury” of the temple, in which the Israelites gave their offerings. On the exterior facade of the atrium, there were 13 wooden boxes in the form of trumpets, which were used to collect the compulsory as well as the voluntary contributions. The tithe was a compulsory contribution paid annually to the temple by all twenty-year-old male Israelite. In Jesus’ time, they were two drachmas (two dinars, equivalent to two days’ work). There were other types of money which were compulsory offerings for cult: for incense, gold, silver, turtledoves, etc. Voluntary almsgiving took several forms: for the atonement of sin, for purification, etc. During holidays, a large crowd gathered around the treasury as people from all over the country came to fulfill their religious duty of giving their support to the cult. The temple’s treasury was always known for its luxury and opulence. Here, the powerful people of the country left their wealth of incalculable value, in kind and in cash. Several families deposited their wealth, especially those of the aristocracy and the religious group. This made the temple the most important financial institution in the country. The building symbolized wealth and power. Passing through any entrance, one would have to cross large doors coated with gold and silver. All this makes one appreciate what Jesus said about the widow’s offering. She dropped a few coins into the treasury box which was not even enough to pay for a day’s meal. In magnifying the widow’s generosity, Jesus, faithful to the tradition of the prophets, denounced the luxury of the so-called house of God, and more so, the assurance with which the rich thought of buying with their money the Lord’s benevolence. (Jer 7:1-11).
The true God cannot be pleased with money. God’s temple is human beings (1 Cor 3:16). The best tradition of the Church was always critical of the wealth of the temples. “The Church is not a showcase of gold and silver… Do you really want to honor the body of Christ? Do not allow him to be naked, nor honor him (in the temple) with silken clothes, yet, let him feel the cold and nakedness outside…” (St. John Crisostomo, homily L, 3 and 4).
(Mk 12:41-44; Lk 21:1-4)