**This is an academic paper written for my Doctor of Ministry program at Southeastern University. The formatting is weird (bullet numbers, spacing, etc.) but my only desire is to give this an online home, with the hope that it may benefit some. God cares so deeply for the poor and marginalized, and he’s not nearly as impressed religious systems as we are… I hope this is a blessing to those who take the time to read and consider the story from Mark’s Gospel. All footnotes are found at the very end and correspond with the number in the body of the writing.
Mark 12:38-13:2 is an astounding overview of the final recorded scenes of the public ministry of Jesus after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The context of this passage includes interaction between Jesus, influential Jewish religious leaders, an unnamed widow, a curious crowd, and his disciples. Preceding this passage, Jesus called a group of disciples to follow him, healed a number of people, taught in parables, and calmed raging seas. Upon his entrance into Jerusalem, Jesus promptly infuriated religious leaders by driving money changers out of the temple and criticized scribes that found great pleasure in their lofty and influential positions in society. This story is also captured in Luke 20:45-21:4. Both accounts reveal the compassionate heart of God toward the poor and the harsh consequences that accompany religious leaders that misdirected their affection away from the covenant community and toward a lifestyle of acquisitiveness and extraction.
- World Behind the Text
The authorship of the Gospel of Mark has confounded biblical scholars and historians for generations. The document itself gives no name for the author, no date of writing, and no place or reason for the writing. Additionally, scholars are not in agreement about any of the specific circumstances for the writing of the Gospel of Mark. As such, the document itself must be explored in conjunction with the other gospel accounts found in the books of Matthew, Luke, and John.
Mark’s account is heavily narrative, conveying the feeling of fast-paced action. Brian Blount states,
The apocalyptic premise that God’s strategic objective was to do battle with the forces of chaos and destruction in order to bring humankind into relationship with God, and thereby to save it, could not be explained by theoretical propositions or encyclopedic statistics; it had to be narrated.”
Willem Vorster states plainly, “I am convinced that for the purpose of determining the literary activity of Mark, the genre of his book and the interpretation thereof, it is of no value to know who Mark actually was.” In regard to the date of writing, scholars allow for a wide range of time for the date of writing of the Gospel of Mark. Any time between A.D. 50 and 75 can be argued as an accurate date, and there should be no compelling basis for being more precise.
Immediately before the story moves to the interaction between Jesus and religious leaders in 12:38, Jesus engaged in a public discourse with an expert in religious law. This unnamed man asked Jesus to identity the greatest commandment out of approximately 600 religious laws. Jesus replies in 12:29-31 by stating,
“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (New Living Translation)
Mark 12:28-34 stands as a concise call to disciples of Christ to model their behavior in a way that expresses passion and dedication to God first and foremost, but quickly moves into the importance of our communal responsibility to love our neighbors with equal passion. This charge is given to ensure a balanced life of faith that is equal parts spiritual and physical. The intangible expression of faith meets the earthiness of loving fellow sons and daughters of God.
N.T. Wright states, “If we truly lived like that for a single day, God’s kingdom would have come on earth as it is in heaven.” Additionally, James K. A. Smith states, “To be human is to love, and it is what we love that defines who we are.” The call to loving God with full passion and commitment is paired with recognition that behavior toward their neighbor is of utmost importance to Jesus. As Smith affirms, the object of our affection will shape our lives in various ways. Jesus’ call to loving God and others produces both spiritual and relational health for residents of the kingdom of God.
The philosophical framework that Jesus presents of loving God with full passion and neighbors with equal force sets up a stunning scenario in 12:38-44 as an impoverished widow is highlighted as a physical representation of the way the religious leaders had lost their way by choosing public honor and recognition over caring for the most vulnerable among their community. Dallas Willard states, “We can only love adequately by taking as our primary aim the integration of our rule with God’s. That is why love of neighbor is the second, not the first, commandment and why we are told to seek first the kingdom, or rule, of God.” The religious leaders in 12:38-44 lost their first love and the consequences of their misguided affection would be severe.
III. Contextual Analysis
- Beware of Pious Religious Teachers (12:38-40)
Jesus also taught: “Beware of these teachers of religious law! For they like to parade around in flowing robes and receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces. And how they love the seats of honor in the synagogues and the head table at banquets. Yet they shamelessly cheat widows out of their property and then pretend to be pious by making long prayers in public. Because of this, they will be more severely punished.”
The full force of Jesus’ disappointment and ire is aimed at a group of religious leaders that were referred to in this day as “scribes,” a class of people trained to interpret the Old Testament law for the life of the people. It is important to note that the imperative verb, “beware,” is in the second person plural. Insofar as the warning is an attack against the scribes, it is addressed to the gathered crowd in the Temple still assumed to be present in the Marcan context. The hearers of this shocking interaction between Jesus and the religious leaders would then also serve to be a warning to all that were listening. Jesus was demanding that the practice of false piety had no place in the new kingdom that was being established. He wanted the fullness of their love that included inward devotion to God and outward expression of neighborliness to members of their community (12:28-34).
The scribes had given their professional lives to attaining an elite status in their community as experts in religious law. This position came with benefits of extraordinary cultural influence and power. Scribal teachers of the law enjoyed all the fame and outward honor that their unquestioned intellectual mastery of Scripture brought to them. In rabbinic teaching, all the Jews were to rise at the approach of a scribe, the only exception being the worker on the job. Additionally, scribes wore white linen robes reaching to their feet as a sign of their devotion to the law and their special place in Jewish life. Leon Morris states, “The long robes the scribes wore were a sign of distinction and marked the wearers as gentlemen of leisure, for anyone who worked for his living would not be cumbered with such clothing.” The religious community was clamoring for physical representations of godliness and the scribes were more than willing to enjoy the benefits of being the object of their affection and adoration.
However, the adulation that accompanied their influential positions within this culture also led to misguided affection that produced a hunger for greed and extraction. Geoffrey Smith states,
The extent of their faith runs no deeper than religious displays: flowing robes, respectful greetings, seats of honor in the synagogue and at banquets. But Jesus singles out one particular sinister activity of the scribes that reveals the horrendous nature of their hypocrisy: They devour widows’ houses, covering up their crimes with still more superficial piety – their long prayers.
Jesus uses the introduction of widows here to give a specific example of a larger problem. Widows, in this passage, represent the plight of the poor and marginalized that co-existed in community with the powerful and influential. However, it is important to note that the lofty positions that the scribes attained did not come from their own ability to generate wealth from their profession. They depended on the generosity of the community to sustain their day-to-day lives. Widows were a prime target for many scribes to extract resources for their personal gain. Leon Morris states,
It was forbidden to scribes to accept money for teaching. They must, and did, make their knowledge available without charge. But there was nothing to stop people making gifts to teachers and this was regarded as meritorious. Evidently some of the scribes encouraged aged impressionable widows to make gifts beyond their means.
It is not exactly known what it meant to “shamelessly cheat widows out of their property.” Neither are the details of this practice clearly defined in the Biblical text. Scholarly opinion is also divided. Morris suggests that some of the scribes encouraged widows to make gifts beyond their means. Joachim Jeremías states the the practice of cheating widows out of their property “is much more likely to refer to the scribes’ habit of sponging on the hospitality of people of limited means.” Whichever position is taken in the reading of this passage, the reader should expect that whoever or whatever is the object of the devouring, it will be completely consumed as a result. In financial matters, a devoured victim would be left penniless.
James 3:1 refers to the warning for those that long to be teachers by stating, “Dear brothers and sisters, not many of you should become teachers in the church, for we who teach will be judged more strictly.” James included himself in this warning and it would have served the teachers of religious law in this context to carefully consider such wisdom, as well. However, they proceeded to enjoy the benefits of leadership without the respect for God and his statutes that would lead to a healthy and thriving relationship with God and man. Alan Cole states, “For those who accept the Bible as a rule of faith and conduct, there is no excuse for disobedience.” He continues, “The widow and orphan should above all others have been the objects of their compassion and prayer because they are the objects of God’s special concern and instead, they robbed them.
Jesus had harsh words for religious leaders throughout his entire public ministry. Their practices of outward expression, while being void of any spiritual depth, were detestable to him. He delivers another crushing blow to their system of greed and extraction in Matthew 23:25-26 by stating,
What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy – full of greed and self-indulgence! You blind Pharisee! First wash the inside of the cup and the dish, and then the outside will become clean, too.
Scribes would often employ a strategy of distraction to misdirect attention away from their practice of acquisitiveness by engaging in lengthy times of public prayer. Jesus publicly condemns such prayers in verse 40 by stating that they “pretend to be pious by making long prayers in public.” Morris refers to this practice by stating, “Their prayers featured length rather than depth; they were prayers that gave the illusion of piety, but as they were offered in pretense they availed nothing before God.”
Jesus foreshadows a striking blow that he delivers in 13:1-2 regarding the destruction of the temple by stating in verse 40, “Because of this, they will be more severely punished.” The religious leaders allowed their affection to be swayed by the things of the world and away from their wholehearted love for God. James K. A. Smith states, “To be human is to love, and it is what we love that defines who we are.” The call to loving God with full passion and commitment is paired with recognition that behavior toward their neighbor is of utmost importance to Jesus. As Smith affirms, the object of our affection will shape our lives in various ways. Jesus’ call to loving God and others produces both spiritual and relational health for residents of the kingdom of God. N.T. Wright states, “If we truly lived like that for a single day, God’s kingdom would have come on earth as it is in heaven.”
It is important to note that every member of the community of scribes would not have been as morally reprehensible as the ones that Jesus castigated in this passage. 12:28-34 ends on a positive note with Jesus offering hope to this religious leader that asked which of the commandments was the greatest. Verse 34 depicts Jesus acknowledging that the scribe had engaged in this discourse with wisdom and genuine desire to learn and grow. His statement, “you are not far from the Kingdom” is deliberately ambiguous and was undoubtedly intended to provoke reflection. The open-ended conclusion to this conversation undoubtedly leaves the scribe with much to consider in light of the context of the religious customs that were in place in this day. Instead of a general blow to all religious leaders of this day, the words of Jesus in 12:38-39 should be understood as a criticism of the abuses in practice and motivation that were a temptation for the scribal class.
- Contrasting Gifts to the Temple (12:41-44)
Jesus sat down near the collection box in the Temple and watched as the crowds dropped in their money. Many rich people put in large amounts. Then a poor widow came and dropped in two small coins. Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has given more than all the others who are making contributions. For they gave a tiny part of their surplus, but she, poor as she is, has given everything she had to live on.
The scene moves to the section of the temple that is set aside for financial offerings to be deposited. Leon Morris describes this ornate setting at the temple by stating, “The treasury was apparently the name given to a section of the court of the women where there were thirteen trumpet-shaped shaped collection boxes, each with an inscription indicating the use to which its contents would be put. Offerings were given in a very public manner and Jesus carefully observed the actions of those bringing their gifts to the temple. Verse 41 simply states, “Many rich people put in large amounts.” It would be reasonable to view this as a positive action from the members of the religious community that had been blessed with extraordinary resources. However, Jesus was not concerned with the amount of the gift, but rather the state of the heart of those that were giving gifts.
Alan Cole states, “Now comes, appropriately enough after this warning, the story of the widow’s gift. Avarice and nominal religion, with all its pomp and show, have just been castigated.” Jesus clearly and powerfully affirms the relatively small monetary gift of the poor widow in contrast to the far greater monetary sum that was deposited by the wealthy individuals.
The amount that was given by the widow is astonishingly small. However, the unnamed woman in this story withheld nothing in her gift to the temple. Leon Morris states, “If the measure be what is left over after giving, she certainly outdistanced them all, for they gave out of their abundance, and thus had much left over. She gave all she had. This is real sacrifice.” Lamar Williamson gives further context to the relatively miniscule size of her gift that day. He states,
Modern translations render the total value of the two coins variously as a farthing or fraction of a penny; about a penny; or a few cents. The point is, simply, that the coin was the smallest unit of money in the time and place that the woman, having only two, gave all she had.
Jesus was not swayed by outward expressions of faith, and he certainly did not need the money that the affluent members of the community were depositing into the temple treasury. The contrast in this passage is stunning between the arrogance of the rich and the wholehearted devotion of the poor widow. Furthermore, she would most likely represent the very group who are made a prey by the scribes. Yet here she, out of poverty and true devotion to God, makes an offering unseen and unnoticed, except by Jesus. Williamson continues,
She gave this to the Temple, the extravagance and imminent destruction of which will be the subject of the very next verses. Jesus might have scolded the woman for lack of prudence in giving both coins or for lack of discretion in giving them to this decadent religious establishment. Instead, he praises her highly.
Together, the pictures are a matching pair, emphasizing the strong contrast. Jesus, of course, did not deny that the rich gave large sums; he merely said that the widow gave still more, for theirs was only a contribution, generous though it might be, while hers was a total sacrifice. Geoffrey Smith states,
While the scribes use the pretense of religion to gain money, the widow’s piety is expressed through her willingness to give money—even if her giving exhausts all of her resources. She possesses what God loves: faith. She believes he will meet all of her needs.
Psalm 146 addresses the way in which God has genuine care and concern for the poor and marginalized. Verse 7 says, “He gives justice to the oppressed and food to the hungry.” Verse 9 continues by defending the weak, while presenting ominous foreshadowing to those who would scheme against them. He states, “The Lord protects the foreigners among us. He cares for the orphans and widows, but he frustrates the plans of the wicked.” The language of Proverbs 15:25 is extraordinarily similar to the Marcan passage. The passage reads, “The Lord tears down the house of the proud, but he protects the property of widows.”
Furthermore, Jesus’ attention given to the widow’s gift doubles as an indictment on the scribes. The religious leaders were turning a blind eye to the precarious state of her financial situation as they continued to show lavish outward expressions of their false zeal for God. Morris states, “A widow had few ways of earning money in first-century Judea and normally found life very difficult. A poor widow is thus almost proverbial for the poorest of people.” The widow represents a large community of poor and destitute people in the context of this community. The story of these contrasting gifts is used to highlight a concentration of wealth and power that was hoarded by the influential and powerful leaders of the day. N.T. Wright summarizes this passage by stating,
Giving up one’s life, indeed, is the theme of the final short scene, where Jesus contrasts the rich people who can afford to give plenty to the Temple treasury, and make sure others see that they’re doing it, with the poor widow who has given, literally, ‘her whole life’, the two copper coins which were all she had to live on that day. Her sacrifice, though small, was total.
The story of the poor widow precedes the foreshadowing of the destruction of the temple that was built as the focal point of worship for the Jewish community. As such, the widow represents an example of the violation of Jewish laws that were in place to care for the most vulnerable among them. The miracle that Jesus accomplished by raising the son of the widow in the village of Nain (Luke 7:11-15) highlights his heart for the most vulnerable members of the community. Jesus raised this boy from the dead, but also restored the widow’s only protector and perhaps her only source of income.
Geoffrey Smith highlights an important connection between the indictment against the scribes (because of their treatment of the poor) and the declaration that the temple would be destroyed (13:1-2). He raises the point that this widow is actually a physical representation of their violation of Old Testament law. He states, “The widow herself stands as a symbol. Her impoverished condition alone is a scandal in Israel in the light of Torah.” He continues, “In the Old Testament, widows, along with the fatherless and aliens, were the most vulnerable and dependent class of people in the land. As such, widows were entitled to unique protection under the Law of Moses.
Deuteronomy 28:14-28-29 describes the Israelites caring for the Levites, foreigners, orphans, and widows. This passage is also sure to remind the community of the blessing from God that will accompany such generosity and concern for the most vulnerable among their community. It states,
At the end of every third year, bring the entire tithe of that year’s harvest and store it in the nearest town. Give it to the Levites, who will receive no allotment of land among you, as well as to the foreigners living among you, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, so they can eat and be satisfied. Then the Lord your God will bless you in all your work.
As the final scene in the public ministry of Jesus in the book of Mark, it is important to understand why the story of the widow’s gift would appear in between passages that include an indictment on the religious leaders of the day and the upcoming declaration that the temple will be destroyed in 13:1-2. Smith states, “We are able to see a thematic bridge between scribal avarice and the pronouncement of ultimate curse on the nation: Will God abandon Israel and destroy his dwelling place, the temple?”
- Foreshadowing of Destruction (13:1-2)
As Jesus was leaving the Temple that day, one of his disciples said, “Teacher, look at these magnificent buildings! Look at the impressive stones in the walls.” Jesus replied, “Yes, look at these great buildings. But they will be completely demolished. Not one stone will be left on top of another!”
Herod the Great was not a popular figure among the Jews during his reign, but all accounts agree that the temple he planned and built was an incredible architectural masterpiece. The stones measured greater than 25 by 8 by 12 feet; the courts were surrounded by huge colonnades; there were ornate decorations in bright colors made of precious materials. The ‘third temple’ was one of the architectural wonders of the Roman world, unfinished at the date of its destruction. N.T. Wright states, “Herod’s Temple, still incomplete in Jesus’ day, had the reputation of being the most beautiful building in the whole world, and was certainly the largest and most imposing structure for hundreds of miles in any direction.” As a mountain of white marble decorated with gold, the temple dominated the Kidron gorge as an object of dazzling beauty.
Chapter 13 introduces the reader to the disciples as they are overwhelmed at the splendor of the temple complex. Jesus, however, remains unimpressed with the opulence and beauty of the building. However, it is only this widow in all her simplicity and poverty that Jesus cites as worthy of the attention of his followers. Jesus was unmoved by the grandeur of the temple and infinitely more concerned with the lack of genuine devotion that was being displayed by the religious leaders that filled its’ courts. The hearts of the religious leaders that had turned away from him were immeasurably more important than beautiful, inanimate structures.
The focal point of Jewish worship was found at this temple, so the declaration that it would be destroyed was met with shock and bewilderment. William Lane states,
Jesus’ prediction was fulfilled with awful finality in the destruction of Jerusalem by the legions of Rome in A.D. 70. After fire had raged through the Temple precincts Titus ordered the demolition of the Temple in the course of which buildings were leveled to the ground.
While the disciples were still lost in wonder in response to the physical structure before them, Jesus delivers a severe prediction about the fate of this building. He announces the approach of a day when utter devastation will overtake the city and the Temple will be systematically dismantled. Alan Cole notes the ominous change in the tone of the story of Jesus from this point forward in Mark. He states, “From now on, we move into a climate of increasing violence, and a sense of impending catastrophe.”
The temple was not set out to become a primary object of affection or admiration. Conversely, it was to be a place that inspired people to experience the presence of God and honor him with their sacrifices of wholehearted devotion. However, the failure of the Temple authorities in Jesus’ day to respect God’s intention with reference to the Temple created the climate in which its ruin was certain.
Verses 1-2 mark the end of the Jerusalem ministry and the final disqualification of the Temple as the focal point of the Kingdom of God. No longer would the people come to this temple to worship God (or their own pious pursuits, for that matter). The focal point of the Kingdom of God would be fulfilled ultimately and totally in Jesus Christ himself. Williamson states,
The Messiah, as embodied in Jesus Christ is a king whose power is revealed in the regal simplicity with which he gives his life and whose total obedience to the rule of God in his own life will be vindicated in a kingdom that is still coming.
- World in Front of the Text
The lessons that are presented in 12:38-13:2 are applicable for the church today. The generosity of the poor widow is one of the most obvious ways that she was affirmed by Jesus in this passage, but it is far from the full lesson of this story. Alan Cole states, “It is well to remember that God measures giving, not by what we give, but by what we keep for ourselves; and the widow kept nothing, but gave both coins, all that she had.” The wholehearted devotion of the woman in this passage serves as a reminder that Jesus would give all of himself, as well. Lamar Williamson says,
The woman’s action is praiseworthy because out of her poverty and without reservation she gave her whole living to God. But more is meant here. Her gift foreshadows the one Jesus is about to make: His very life. In Mark this poor widow becomes a type of him who, “though he was rich, yet for our sake became poor, so that by his poverty we might become rich (2 Corinthains 8:9).”
Jesus loved others with unrelenting passion and consistency. The religious leaders described in 12:38-44 allowed themselves to be enticed into a culture of extraction and acquisitiveness that valued the stones of the temple (and all the power and influence that grand structure represented) more than the people that filled their lives on a daily basis. Their indifference toward the poor and vulnerable was an outward sign of their inward depravity and lostness.
Church leaders in the current cultural climate would be well-served to take heed to the behavior of Jesus toward the rich and the poor. He consistently warned that the rich would face temptations that would make it extremely difficult for them to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:23). Conversely, Jesus continually celebrated those that expressed a spirit of neighborliness in their generosity and joy in caring for the poor (Proverbs 19:17). He ferociously defended them against all who would attempt to capitalize upon their vulnerability (Psalm 140:12).
In his book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, Ronald Sider challenges churches and parishioners to evaluate themselves in regard to their care for those who are poor and marginalized. He states, “Is there the same balance and emphasis on justice for the poor and oppressed in our programs as there is in Scripture?” Sadly, all too often the answer to that question is a resounding no. Mark’s language was designed to do something in the lives of his readers. It was designed to move them toward interventionist kingdom preaching. Mark 12:38-13:2 is a clarion call to church leaders and parishioners to align their desires with that which matters most to God. The neighborly community described in 12:28-34 includes full passion for God and those created in his image (Genesis 1:27).
Brian Blount raises the point that true followers of Jesus would also act as people that break boundaries and establish the beautiful kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. He states,
Mark’s point is that this hope for boundary-trespass is initiated in the present by those who foresee and anticipate God’s consummate act of transformation in the future. In this way, through their boundary breaking preaching activity, the future reality of the kingdom will take shape as a pocket force of resistance in the present. The consummate overhaul of the present oppressive reality will not occur until God’s strategic design executes its final invasion of the human arena.
The Gospel of Mark’s placement of the story describing the poor widow’s generous gift was strategically place in between the indictment of the scribes and the prediction of the temple being destroyed. Her presence in between these two significant judgments against the religious system of extraction act as an embodiment of the failure of the worshiping community. Mark intended his readers to see in Jesus’ words not only a condemnation of the abuses of Jewish teachers but also a warning about the development of similar abuses in Christian circles. Geoffrey Smith states,
The widow is a symbol: She represents one of the last nails in the coffin of national Israel. The chronic disregard of God’s Law and the sham religion of the nation’s leaders were summed up in her. Mark has strategically included this account to link the denunciation of the scribes’ wicked activities with the prophecy of the destruction of the temple.
The scribes allowed their lustful propensity toward greed, power, and influence pull them away from wholehearted devotion to God and into a pattern of systematic oppression of the poor and vulnerable. This violated the greatest commandment that Jesus highlighted in 12:28-34, which included loving God and neighbors with equal force and passion. James 1:27 concisely describes the lifestyle of a person that has completely fixed their affection upon Jesus. It states, “Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.”
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. Willem S. Vorster. 1980. “Mark: collector, redactor, author, narrator?.” Journal Of Theology For Southern Africa 31, 46-61. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed July 19, 2017). 48.
. Geoffrey Smith. 1997. “A Closer Look at the Widow’s Offering: Mark 12:41-44.” Journal Of The Evangelical Theological Society 40, no. 1: 27-36. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials PLUS, EBSCOhost (accessed August 1, 2018). 29.