Jesus and the Problem of Performative Religion: A Reflection on Mark 12.38-44

“All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players.” These words of William Shakespeare from As You Like It capture well the feeling we all have from time to time that our lives are not our own — that we’re all too often caught up in the deep behavioural ruts of the roles set down for us by society: I cease truly being “Matt” because I’m playing the role of “son” or “friend” or “employee” or “Christian.” In our highly individualistic culture, this truth is counterbalanced by an equal and opposite impulse, perhaps best articulated by RuPaul’s saying, “We’re all born naked and the rest is drag.” This idea rightly understands that despite the social pressures we encounter, we have control over how we present ourselves in the world, that we have the power to create our persona; even if there are negative consequences of that choice, it’s still ours to make. While these two sayings differ over who determines the role we play, they share the understanding that life is essentially a performance. I think there’s a lot of truth in this in terms of how the world works; but it can also be dangerous, especially when applied to religion, where looks can so often be deceiving, with disastrous results. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus tackles this problem of performative religion, and it’s this aspect of the text that I’d like to reflect on today.

Jesus begins with a diatribe:

Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers! (Mark 12.38-40).

These are clearly people who understand religion as a performance, as a kind of drag. They like to put on a good show: they dress to impress and play up the respect and privilege their office provides them. They like the sound of their own voices, and know how to use them to sound smart and pious. And yet, despite this impressive performance, it has nothing to do with who they really are. Their show is all a front. “Beware!” he says. These are dangerous people. They care about appearances and not reality; they care only about themselves, puffing up their egos and filling up their bank accounts. And “they devour widows’ houses” to do it.

It’s a shocking and violent image that Jesus uses here. But it draws his audience’s — and our — attention to the real point. The Law takes great concern for the care of the marginalized — foreigners, widows and orphans. As religious officials, the scribes should know this full well and should be the first to live according to these precepts. And yet, they abuse their power to prop up their own wealth at the expense of the very same powerless people they are charged to protect.

At this point in the story, Jesus sits down to watch the goings on at the Temple treasury. Amidst the parade of wealthy people making a show of their large donations, a poor widow deposits her last two coins. Jesus then comments that her small offering is far greater than larger donations of the wealthy. There are two ways commentators have generally interpreted this. The first is to contrast the generosity of the poor as compared to the relative stinginess of the wealthy. If we take this approach, then the passage is a celebration of sacrificial giving. However, more recently there has been a shift away from this approach to one that, quite rightly I think, understands it as a dramatization of what Jesus had been talking about. He’s railing against religious officials ‘devouring’ widows and now sees a widow giving her last two coins to religious officials. In this reading of the text, the “widow’s mite” ceases to be about some sort of heroic virtue of the poor but, like the cleansing of the Temple, an attack on a corrupt system, wherein the very institutions whose job it is to protect the marginalized are adding to their burdens.

These two understandings are not mutually exclusive, but I am increasingly convinced that the first interpretation needs the second to keep it from becoming exploitative. This isn’t a feel-good story, but a prophetic calling out of the keeping up of appearances that so often marks religion. It calls us back to “true religion,” which of course the Scriptures define as “to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to avoid the corrupting influences of the world” (James 1.27).

Life may indeed be a stage, but we do have some control over the role we are going to play. Today Jesus reminds us that the life of faith is about the substance of changed lives that bear good fruit in our world, not about the external trappings or keeping up appearances.

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