The Widow’s Mites

Two days before the events of our text today, Jesus had entered the city of Jerusalem.  He went to the Temple, looked the place over, then left for Bethany, about two miles away.  The next day he came back and launched a direct attack on the Temple.  It was a religious as well an economic institution performing many financial functions, including operating as a central bank and treasury.  The Temple employed hundreds.  The Temple priests and scribes, they lived high on, if  you will excuse the expression, the hog.  They received a cut from every Temple sacrifice and were the beneficiaries of a five-shekel tax on every first-born child.  Several other offerings–or perhaps better understood as taxes–brought in even greater wealth.  That was so much the case that the priests got into the business of lending money, which meant that they also were in a position to foreclose on property when the borrower defaulted on the loan.



Mark 12:38-44

38As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

41He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”



Amid all this secular business, it is interesting that Jesus’ protest focused on two specific actions.  He “overturned the tables” of the moneychangers who were street representatives of moneyed banking interests, wealthy Jerusalem families.  The exchange rates they charged were exploitive.  He o “overturned the seats” of those who sold doves.  Doves were the sacrifice of the poor but the poor could no longer afford even these.  Jesus interprets his disruptive action with reference to two great prophets, Isaiah and Jeremiah.  Isaiah said the Temple was to be “a house of prayer for all peoples”, and the great prophet Jeremiah called it a “den of theives.” 


On Tuesday Jesus again returned to the Temple.  Teaching on several controversial topics he skewered all of his major opponents–chief priests, elders, Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herodians. He had the stunned religious leaders back on their heels, and the people were loving it.


Then, Jesus turned his attention to the scribes, the Temple lawyers.  He said they strutted around in long robes, enjoyed their privilege and preference in the marketplace, and sat in the most desirable seats in the synagogues and at dinners.  Jesus mocked them for it.  But apart from their hypocritical and ostentatious display, the scribes also did real damage.  They were “the ones devouring the houses of widows.”  When someone died, they would swoop in and help “manage” the deceased person’s estate.  And of course, they charged a fee for this “service.” 


Then–note the stage direction–Jesus “sat over against—kate anti–the treasury.”  The Temple treasury was located in the Court of Women.  It consisted of 13 flute-shaped chests into which people threw their offerings.  Donors would state the amount of their gift and the purpose for which it was given.  I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that such a system of public contributions might generate some “showing off”. Jesus draws a contrast between the “many rich” who were “throwing much” and the one poor “beggar widow” who threw in her last two insignificant little coins.  (It took somewhere between four and eight of them to make a penny.)  This widow, incidentally, is identified as the poorest of the poor, a widow reduced to begging.  And just to be clear, she wasn’t a poor widow, as if there were wealthy widows, she was destitute because of her status as a widow, and institutional victim of a corrupt system. 


Jesus warns about the self-serving scribes who will be condemned for their simultaneous love for “show” and cynical lack of mercy—specifically to widows.  In the passage cited earlier by Jesus, the prophet Jeremiah had said that the pious incantation of “the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord” meant nothing.  Only if “you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow” will the Lord God “dwell with you in this place.”  In the first century, the warning of Jeremiah was more on point than ever.  Not only did the Temple “devour widows’ houses,” they also took at least one beggar-widow’s “whole life.”  


Jesus tells his disciples that the poor woman has given more than anyone, he says, “for all threw out of their abundance, but she threw” out of her poverty.  Note Jesus’ three-fold description of the woman’s economic condition.  She gave “out of her want, all as she had, her whole life.”  The NRSV, bowing to some questionable interpretation,  translates the last phrase as “all she had to live on.”  Literally, the phrase is:  “her whole life.”


Contrary to many sermons delivered which encourage people to this level of sacrificial giving, Jesus does not lift the beggar-widow up as an example, or suggest that anyone ought to emulate her.  She is not a positive example, but rather the living representative of a crying shame.  Jesus does not laud the woman.   She represents the on-going exploitation of the poor by the Temple elite.


Remember the closing scene in The Godfather: Michael Corleone is standing as… well… godfather for his infant niece at her baptism. During the four-minute scene, the audio track remains with the baptismal rite while the video track moves back and forth from the scene in the church to scenes of hit men under Corleone’s command preparing to murder several rivals. The murders themselves coincide exactly with Corleone’s renunciation of Satan and all his works. Melodramatic for sure, but no less so than the image suggested by Jesus: “They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.”

Some preachers have described this as “a beautiful story” or as “a beautiful act” and almost universally is seen as some kind of observation on the measuring of gifts, or as an exhortation to “give till it hurts”, or even as an example of some virtue to be acquired.


When it finally comes to the essential task of setting forth the point of the whole story, the commentary-discussions become most uncritical. Almost every scholar has some pious idea to propound but there is no attempt to refine these ideas or to test them against the text itself.  Each commentator simply affirms that, to their mind, one of several interpretations is the message of the story, and occasionally add that further comment is unnecessary and that the story speaks for itself.


For a story that speaks for itself the range of exegetical opinion is amazing. Most opinions fall into one of three categories:


The most common is that the true measure of gifts is not how much is given but how much remains behind or that the measure of gifts is the percentage of one’s means which the gift represents and/or that the true measure of gifts is the self-denial involved, the cost for the giver. Does Jesus imply that the widow gave more because her gift was a sacrifice, because it cost? That is a stretch of the imagination and any ideas beyond this first category have no basis in the text.  And it is gratuitous, given the details of the text, to say that it is not the amount but the spirit accompanying the gift which made the difference. Now remember, all that Jesus says by way of comment is: “She gave more . . . for they all contributed out of their abundance but she out of her want has put in everything she had, her whole living.” The text does not contrast human evaluation with divine


The next contention is that point of Jesus’ commendation is that it is not the amount which one gives that matters but the spirit in which the gift is given. When specified, that spirit is described in various pious concepts such as self-offering, self-forgetfulness, unquestioning surrender, total commitment, loyalty and devotion to God’s call, gratitude, generosity humility and unobtrusiveness, trust in God to provide for one’s needs, and even detachment from worldly possessions.  The inner attitude of the widow is not available to us nor does the story say that it was available to Jesus. She could have acted out of despair, out of guilt, out of a desire to be seen contributing. He simply says that she gave more. Any statement about her inner disposition or outward appearance can only come from reading into the text.


Thirdly some suggest that the point of the story is that the true gift is to give everything we have.  The suggestion that “the true gift is to give all” is not at all the point of this story.  The suggestion that “one should give according to one’s means” is not what the text says either. One thing is certain, the widow is giving well beyond her means.


If we seek to understand any Biblical story, presumably the point should be found in what Jesus said, not what we choose to read into it. The story has been and probably will continue to be used to indicate the duty of almsgiving, primarily in stewardship sermons.  But this story is not about the duty of almsgiving either. In fact, any type of “example-interpretation” of the passage runs into the difficulty that there is no invitation in the text to imitate the widow, no statement that Jesus looked on her and loved her, no command to go and do in like-wise, no remark that she is not far from the kingdom.  So, put yourself in the position of being a witness to this scene, as if you were actually to see in real life a poor widow giving the very last of her money to support a religious institution.  Wouldn’t it occur to you that such an act was based on misguided piety because she would be neglecting her own needs? Do you think that Jesus would have reacted otherwise?


Jesus wasn’t a philosopher who went about commenting on how to evaluate gifts but he was a religious reformer. And the most serious problem is that, while the story can be made to relate to a number of other sayings of Jesus on such things as trusting, detachment, or poverty, it is not consistent at all with Jesus’ Corban statement. He proclaims in Mark ( 7:10 -13):  Moses said, “Honor your father and your mother”; and “He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him surely die”; but you say, “If a man tells his father and mother, ‘What you would have gained from me is Corban’ (that is, given to God)”—then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your traditions which you hand on.”


Not only today do I find the widow’s action painful I suspect that Jesus found it painful too.  He is remembered for having said that those who withdraw support from their parents and dedicate it to God are wrongheaded. Furthermore, the temple lawyers and others who promote or declare that kind of religious activity to be binding are also wrongheaded. In other words, he is remembered for having said that human need takes precedence over religious duty when they conflict; that God gave the law not for itself but for people, and that religious values are human values. The same idea is expressed in his healings on the Sabbath and perhaps in the parable of the good Samaritan. Jesus’ Corban statement sets limits to the understanding of any of Jesus’ sayings on trusting, detachment, poverty, almsgiving, and the love of God.


What we learn when we look closely at the context of our story is that the commentators whose views we have already looked at failed to pay attention to the immediate context.  The context for this story of the widow’s mites is set by a warning: “Beware of the scribes who like to go about in long robes and have salutations in the market place and the best seats in the synagogues and the place of honor at feasts, who devour widow’s houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation” (Mark 12:38-40; Luke 20:46-47). In both Gospels, Jesus condemns those scribes who devour the houses of widows, and immediately the story of a widow whose house has beyond doubt just been devoured follows. What other words would be more appropriate to describe it? “She put in everything that she had, her whole living.” Her understanding of her religious duty has accomplished the very thing that the scribes were accused of doing.  If, indeed, Jesus is opposed to the devouring of widows’ houses, how could he possibly be pleased with what he saw here?


It would seem that the only way out of these acute difficulties is simply to see Jesus’ attitude to the widow’s gift as downright disapproval. The story does not provide a pious contrast to the conduct of the scribes in the preceding section. Rather it provides a further illustration of the ills of official devotion. Jesus’ saying is not a penetrating insight on the measuring of gifts; it is a lament, “I tell you, she gave more than all the others.” Or, as we would say: “One could easily fail to notice it, but there is a tragedy of the day—she put in her whole living.” She had been taught and encouraged by religious leaders to donate as she does, and Jesus condemns the value system that motivates her action, and he condemns the people who conditioned her to do it.


There is no praise of the widow in the passage and no invitation to imitate her, precisely because she ought not to be imitated.  For when she drops into the treasury her two last remaining small copper coins, two of the smallest coins then in use in Palestine, Jesus tells us, “Out of her poverty she has dropped in her whole life.” The tragedy of the day was this: this widow had been taught and encouraged by religious leaders to donate as she does and Jesus condemns the value system that motivates her action. Jesus was displeased over what the scribes were doing to widows’ estates. No more pleased is he when he sees a poverty stricken woman persuaded by the leaders of her religion to contribute to the treasury her last penny. In a word, Jesus is condemning a structure of sin, a social injustice. Henri Nouwen penetrated into the heart of the matter. He wrote, “Our first question is not how to go out and help the elderly, but how to allow the elderly to enter into the center of our own lives. How to create a space where they can be heard, listened to from within, with careful attention. Quite often our concern to preach, teach, cure, prevents us from perceiving and receiving what those we care for have to offer.” Thus, he says, “Care for the elderly means first of all to make ourselves available to the experience of becoming old. Only he who has recognized the relativity of his own life can bring a smile to the face of a man who feels the closeness of death. In that sense caring is first a way to our own aging self, where we can find the healing powers for all those who share in the human condition.”


Precisely here, our gospel widow returns to us. But for us and our Christian living she is not a striking example of a poor, believing woman who gives her last penny to God in the collection basket. Her story is God’s quiet but passionate rebuke to an unjust social system. A sinful structure that leaves her with only two copper coins and suggests that she surrender even these.


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