One of the challenges of growing up attending church in the Bible Belt is the familiarity with Scripture. This might sound odd, but what I mean is that from a young age, certain passages and “stories” have become all too familiar, so much so that rather than reading these with fresh eyes, I automatically fall into the ditch of how a passage has traditionally been presented to me.
Case in point is the story of The Widow’s Mite.
How many times have you heard this story explained with praise for the widow’s sacrifice in giving all she had into the temple treasury? She is then held up as an example for giving, often used as an argument for tithing, not out of our abundance, but out of our poverty. This explanation makes the temple, leaders, and its institution equivalent with the church, her leaders, and institution. Give til it hurts, we’re often told, for God loves a cheerful giver.
Let’s look at the context to see if the traditional view holds up.
“21 Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box,2 and he saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. 3 And he said, ‘Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. 4 For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.'” Luke 21:1-4
“41 And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. 43 And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. 44 For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” Mark 12:41-44
This story occurs in Luke 21 and Mark 12. The scene from both accounts presents Jesus and His disciples sitting down opposite one of the temple treasury boxes, making observations of those who are putting in their offering. The highlight is the offering made by a poor widow, whom we are told gives two small copper coins. The observation made by Jesus is as follows, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. 44 For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
As mentioned earlier, traditionally this passage is held up as a model of sacrificial giving. We are often taught that Jesus commends the widow for giving out of her poverty vs. giving out of abudance as the rich do. Usually this passage is then applied to either tithing or an attitude of sacrificial giving to Christ. But there’s a major problem here, and it assumes that Jesus is pleased with the temple treasury, the religious leaders, and the entire false institution erected in the name of God.
Context, as they say, is king.
In the passage immediately prior to this one, in both Mark and Luke, Jesus offers a strong warning to His disciples in condemnation of the scribes,
“38 And in his teaching he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces 39 and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, 40 who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
This is followed by the account of the widow’s mite, which itself is immediately followed by this passage
And as he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” 2 And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” Mark 13:1&2
Just to summarize, the passage under consideration, The Widow’s Mite, is sandwiched between a warning against the scribes and the prophecy of the temple’s destruction. How in the world does a passage so often described as an example of sacrificial giving fit here?
The answer is that the passage has nothing to do with sacrificial giving and everything to do with further judgment against the false institutional system of religion against which Jesus has so often spoken. In fact, this observation of the poor widow bilked of her last two coins serves as the final straw to announce the destruction of the center of this false religious system, namely Herod’s Temple.
In Matthew 6, we are told by Jesus to avoid public displays of giving, sound no trumpet, and in fact, do not even let your right hand know what your left hand is doing (which makes it difficult to write a check!). Instead, we are told to let our giving be done in secret. However, the religious leaders had constructed 13 treasure-chests for giving around the colonnade in the Court of Women. These chests were also called “trumpets” because of their narrow mouth and wide base. What went in was literally imprisoned and the sound of the coins dropping in was easily heard. So when Jesus says do not sound a trumpet when giving, in Matthew 6, there is a bit of irony that the treasure chests were shaped like a trumpet and sounded when the money was deposited.
It was into one of these trumpets that the widow gives her last coins.
Note next the warning given against the scribes in the passage just prior to ours, “ who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers.” Here we are told that the scribes devour widow’s houses. Think about this. The very passage before the widow’s offering, we are given a warning about scribes that devour widow’s houses. It is not difficult to make the connection between the two mentions of widows; both being devoured by the religious leaders, exemplified by the widow giving all that she had to a corrupt religious system. If she gives sacrificially to a corrupt religious system, is that worthy of a commendation? What would we say today to the poor widow, duped by the televangelist into sending her last bit of money? That is the scene in this first century story and it simply cannot be missed.
The fact of the matter is that pure and undefiled religion is to care for widows and orphans (James 1:27). This wasn’t something new, but Mosaic law created provisions for just that. (Exodus 22; Deut. 10) This poor widow shouldn’t even have been poor under Mosaic law, let alone be led to believe that she must contribute to the system that was failing to care for her. She should have been cared for, under law. But first century Judaism was an apostate form of Mosaic Judaism. There was no law mandating that a person give money to the temple treasury. That’s man-made religion. As John MacArthur notes in the sermon linked below, “The center of false religion is the treasury. False religion is always about the money. When you get to the treasury, you get to the heart of false religion.”
On the Wednesday of Passion Week, Jesus wasn’t taking a rest in the temple and marveling at the giving spirit of a poor widow. He was watching the furtherence of a false religion built on the last, small coins of poor widows. His next words in Mark 13 and Luke 21 would pronounce judgment on this system and its center of worship, the temple.
For more on this passage, see John MacArthur: Abusing the Poor