The Widow’s mite
In both Mark 12:42-44 and Luke 21:2-4 Christ relates the story of the poor widow who came to the temple treasury to put in two small copper coins. Christ comments “Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the contributors to the treasury: for they all put in out of their surplus, be she, out of her poverty, put in all she owned, all she had to live on.”
But, what does this story really teach?
Many commentators and preachers have pounced on this small story and believe that it may teach:
- That we are to give all we possess to the church.
- That it is the percentage of what we give to what we have that’s important.
- That what is left after we give is what is important.
Certainly, the widow did give all she possessed, in fact, all she had to live on. She did give 100% of what she owned, and she possessed nothing after she gave her two small coins.
But, is this taught anywhere else in the bible? No.
Did the Lord commend her for what she did? No.
Did the Lord say, go and do likewise? No.
So, how do we understand this story?
In understanding anything in the bible, we need to understand the context of the passage. We also need to understand the history. Finally, along with understanding the meaning of the words, we need to see where else in the bible this is taught or not taught.
Let’s begin with context.
All of what is stated in the verses above is happening when Jesus is making his triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Mark 11:11), driving out the temple moneychangers (Mark 11:15), being questioned by the Jewish leaders (Mark 11:27). It has been a busy, tiring and disappointing day, even for Christ.
Christ begins teaching His disciples using parables and then directly addresses what He is observing with offerings into the temple treasury.
In the verses immediately before the story of the Widow’s mite, He says in vs. 38-40 “…beware of the scribes who like to walk around in long robes, and like respectful greetings…and chief seats…and places of honor…who devour widows’ houses…these will receive greater condemnation.”
In the verses immediately after the story, He says in 13:1-2 “…Do you see these great buildings (the temples)? Not one stone shall be left upon another which will not be torn down.”
So in context, this is a story about the abuse of the Church of Israel. They devoured the weak, like widows and orphans, and walked around demanding glory, notice and respect.
Matthew 6:3 instructs us in how to give “”But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing…” The Jews not only made a public spectacle of giving to gain their own glory, they devoured the widows to pad their own pockets.
Clearly then, Christ was offended by how the Jews were giving. It was not to God’s glory, it was not as instructed in Matthew 6:3 in private, and it was in opposition to James 1:27 which states “This is pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father, to visit orphans and widows in their distress…” certainly, then not to devour them by taking their last penny.
What about history?
But there’s a history aspect here also. The Jews were taught to give all they could not only because it would be multiplied and returned to them but also as a works that would gain salvation. Of course some religions continue right on with this false teaching – to this day. So, it has to be asked was the widow super generous or was she trying to work her way unto salvation? Since the Lord didn’t commend her, or say we are to do likewise and since there are no other teachings on giving in line with what the widow did, we would have to be suspect of her motives. Granted, she did give more than the other Jewish leaders, and Christ did acknowledge that. But, that alone is not necessarily commendable.
What does other bible verses teach about giving?
What additionally then, does the bible teach about giving? 2 Corinthians 9:6-7 states this
- “he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully…”
- “each one must do just as he has purposed in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”
So, in addition to privacy (so God gets the glory and not us) we have the principles of generosity and cheerfulness.
But the widow gave all her money. Should not we do likewise?
This is not taught in the bible. In fact, in Matthew 25:27 it says “Then you ought to have put my money in the bank, and on my arrival I would have received my money back with interest.” In other words, although we are to give generously and without complaint, we are to be good stewards and save. The widow gave everything to the point that she had nothing left with which to eat. That is not good stewardship and is not taught in the bible.
So what is the story of the widow’s mite teaching?
It’s simply showing another observation of Christ’s disgust with the state of affairs of Jewish religion. Not only is temple giving an event that bestows glory on the giver vs. God, not only has giving deteriorated to a works system for salvation and earthly rewards, but it has even perverted how widows are taken advantage of by the religious hypocrites.
If anything, it is not a lesson on how we should give. How we are to give is taught in many other verses.
It is in fact a lesson on how some religions would pervert even poor widows for their own glory and profit.