Reading the Bible as an Activist: a Lectionary Series

Watch Out For the Billionaire Philanthropist

Aric Clark

Mark 12:38-44

As Jesus taught, he said, “Watch out for the billionaire philanthropists. They like long press releases publicizing their programs of generosity, their pledges to donate large sums of money, posthumously, to funds in their own names, controlled by their friends and family. They like to be treated like visionaries and geniuses, possessors of secret knowledge. They like us to believe that their wealth itself is proof of their superiority, but they are the ones who cheat widows out of their homes, and whose profligate living makes the sea levels rise. To show off they create large endowments, but they will be judged most harshly.”

Jesus sat down at the border, and watched streams of refugees arrive. Many people were contributing to the effort to stem the effects of climate change. The rich put in large sums, but the poor refugees who contributed little carbon to our atmosphere gave all they had.

Then Jesus called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, these poor refugees lost all they have, their islands, their shorelines, their farms are gone because of the billionaires who are belatedly contributing to the effort to stem the effects of climate change. For the billionaires have contributed out of their abundance; but the refugees out of their poverty, have put in everything they have, all they have to live on.”

The “story of the widow’s mite” as it’s often called, most commonly gets read as a feel-good story about the generosity of the poor. It is frequently used in congregational settings as an encouragement toward sacrificial giving on the part of members toward the church. It is unfortunate, that the context of the story makes this a most unlikely reading.

Jesus is no fan of the temple institution. This incident occurs a scant chapter, and perhaps a mere day after Jesus “cleansed” the temple markets by driving the money lenders out and stopping all commerce for a while in protest of how the temple was treating the poor of the city. Immediately following this passage, Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple on the basis that it is a metaphorical bad fig tree which bears no fruit. These framing stories prevent us from reading the widow’s mite incident as simple praise of generosity. Instead, we should read this story as being about exploitation.

Indeed, Jesus contrasts the widow with another kind of giver, one who gives much more than her, but whose gifts are paradoxically worth less. These givers are the wealthy who use their generosity to the temple to burnish their public image, but the source of their wealth is “devouring widows’ houses”. So in truth, what they give to the temple is the widow’s money anyhow. This is why the widow’s gift is bigger. She gives her own coins, but she also donates whatever the wealthy put in the treasury. All of it belongs to the widows, and the temple participates in the exploitation of widows by laundering the filthy lucre of the scribes in long robes and morally rehabilitating their reputations.

There is a similar dynamic in our present moment when billionaires engage in showy acts of philanthropy, particularly toward the global south. 8 human beings on Earth have as much wealth as the bottom 50% of the human population. That wealth was extracted from poorer, browner, nations toward wealthier, whiter individuals. When that wealth is given to try to cure malaria, or stem the effects of climate change, or save endangered species, instead of using such gifts to heap praise on the billionaire philanthropist we should recognize that the donation comes originally from the poor and refugees from whom the wealth was stolen, and the endowments, too frequently named for the billionaire himself (because it’s certainly a him), are participants in the exploitation of the poor by providing positive public relations for oppressors.

Aric Clark is a writer, a speaker, co-moderator of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship and minister who lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife and two gremlins pretending to be his sons. He is the co-author of Never Pray Again: Lift Your Head, Unfold Your Hands, and Get To Work, a book which challenges readers to embrace a concrete other-centered spirituality. When he is not writing, preaching, or parenting, Aric can be found engaging his tabletop gaming hobby, or cooking for a crowd of random strangers he invited home without his wife’s permission. He is a pacifist and he still can’t grow a beard.

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