By Bryan Owen
Many years ago when I had the privilege of traveling to the Holy Land, one of the things I enjoyed the most was people watching. People from all over the world thronged through the narrow streets of the Old City of Jerusalem. Swimming in this sea of humanity, it was easy to be distracted and miss out on details. But sometimes small things would catch my eye, like the children who were toting their Spider Man book bags home from school, or the many scrawny cats that prowled around the streets, or the young Jewish woman looking down at the Western Wall from a terrace, reciting psalms, sobbing and shaking, tears streaming down her face as though she had just witnessed the destruction of the Jerusalem temple.
Walking in the midst of so many people, I could imagine what it must have been like for Jesus and his disciples when they were in Jerusalem during the week leading up to the Passover. With so many people crowding the city, it would have been easy not to notice things and people that were small and quiet. But in an incident recorded by both Mark and Luke, Jesus’ hawk-like eyes didn’t miss a trick.
It’s the story often referred to as “The Poor Widow’s Mite.”
Jesus and his disciples were hanging out in the temple watching people drop coins into the treasury. Mark tells us that many rich people put in large sums. Since there was no paper money in those days, all of those coins would probably have made quite a racket when dropped into the treasury. That would have made religious giving a great opportunity to call attention to how pious you were. But then a widow showed up. Unlike everybody else, she put in just two small coins each worth about a fraction of a cent. In they went, making hardly a sound.
Nobody else noticed except for Jesus. When he saw what this widow did, Jesus pointed her out to his disciples. “Did you see that?” he said to them. “This poor widow gave more to the collection than all the others put together. All the others gave what they’ll never miss; she gave extravagantly what she couldn’t afford” (Mark 12:43-44, The Message). “She put in everything she had, all she had to live on” (Mark 12:44 NRSV; and cf. Luke 21:4).
Traditional interpretations suggest that since this poor widow’s gift was a true sacrifice, and since the rich gave at no cost to themselves, the giving of the rich doesn’t count for much. It’s the poor widow who models for us what it means to be good stewards of our money and possessions. She shows us that it’s the spirit of our giving and the sacrifice we’re willing to make that really count in God’s eyes. Do we give out of compulsion or out of gratitude? Are we willing to go beyond comfortable giving? Are we willing to follow this poor widow’s example by giving until it hurts?
We do well not to easily dismiss this interpretation. As William Barclay notes, “Few people will do without their pleasures to give a little more to the work of God,” and “there is nearly always something we hold back” from God.
That’s probably true. But there’s a problem with reading the widow’s action this way. It’s certainly the case that Jesus described what she did. Out of her poverty, she gave all she had to live on. But nowhere in this passage did Jesus offer a single word of commendation for her action. He did not praise her. He did not say, “She didn’t hold anything back, she gave away all she had to live on and that’s a good thing. You should do that, too.” And Jesus definitely did not say, “If you’re poor, God wants you to give away what little you have to live on.”
Perhaps an example a bit closer to our possible experience helps drive the point home. Suppose you knew someone who lived on a fixed income, or someone so poor that she didn’t know where her next meal was coming from, and you found out that she had given away everything she had to live on. What little money she had is now gone. Now there’s nothing left to pay the rent, or the electric bill, or to buy groceries. Even if she did it for the best of reasons, would any of us really regard her action as an inspiring example to follow and to commend to others?
And would it really help if we found out that she had given everything she had to live on to the church? Would it make any positive difference if we discovered that someone in a position of religious authority had convinced her that giving everything she had to live on to the Church was God’s will? That God would be pleased if she did that and would reward her for it? And what kind of religious institution would be willing to accept everything she had to live on? What kind of religious institution would persuade society’s most vulnerable to give a gift that renders the giver destitute?
Questions like these are appropriate in light of the fact that Mark prefaces the story of this poor widow with Jesus’ condemnation of the scribes (cf. Mark 12:38-40 and Luke 20:45-47). Capable of reading and writing, the scribes were influential interpreters and teachers of the law. They were lawyers for the ruling class of the day. And like the other religious and political elites, they benefited from the income generated by the temple. It was to that income that this poor widow, in her very small way, contributed by giving everything she had to live on.
Both Mark and Luke link this poor widow’s giving to Jesus’ condemnation of the scribes for “devour[ing] widows’ houses” (Mark 12:40 and Luke 20:47). While strutting around town in their long, flowing robes, courting favor in the synagogues and seeking seats of honor at parties, the scribes were stealing from the poorest of the poor. They exploited the weak and defenseless to line their own pockets. And they added insult to injury by cloaking their exploitation of the poor and needy with the pious mantle of religious observance.
So when Jesus said to his disciples that “this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury,” he was not holding her up as a role model. Instead, he was offering an astonished lament at the perverse injustice of what was happening right before his very eyes: a daughter of Israel participating in her own exploitation by supporting a corrupt religious institution at the possible expense of her life.
It’s little wonder that immediately after this incident, Jesus predicted the temple’s destruction (cf. Mark 13:1-3 and Luke 21:5-6). It was a foretelling of God’s judgment on injustice.
The story of the poor widow giving away everything she had to live on to the temple is a tragic reminder that religion can be used for evil and oppressive purposes. It’s a reminder that vulnerable people can sometimes buy into a theology that undermines their dignity and takes advantage of them.
We live in a world filled with poverty, abuse, oppression, and exploitation. And we live in a world in which our Christian faith sometimes gets used to do the very things to others that break our Lord’s heart. And yet, we know that the very same faith that can be twisted and manipulated to pilfer poor widows can also be used to feed the hungry, build houses for the homeless, care for the sick, befriend the lonely, and extend a hand of fellowship to those the world writes off as worthless. Harnessing our faith’s capacity for such life and dignity-affirming good is a crucial part of the Church’s mission of spreading the message of hope, love, and justice we have received in the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are charged with persevering against evil, seeking and serving Christ in all persons, and respecting the dignity of every human being. May we faithfully carry out this charge by refusing to be meek and mild in the face of injustice by sharing our Lord’s outrage over this world’s exploitation of the weak and the helpless. May we place a higher value on serving the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely than on institutional maintenance and self-preservation. And may we make the sacrifices necessary to practice what the New Testament calls “pure and genuine religion,” which is “to take care of orphans and widows in their suffering, and to keep oneself from being corrupted by the world” (James 1:27).