How many times have you heard people extol the virtues of the “poor widow” in the story we call “The Widow’s Mite?” I remember coloring pictures of the scene in Sunday school, and hearing sermons that pointed out the merits of the widow who gave all that she had. As an adult, I have always used some version of that traditional interpretation of the story. When teaching or preaching this text, I extolled the actions of the woman, and emphasized the difference between contributions (from the rich) and sacrificial giving (from the widow). If you Google “the Widow’s Mite,” you will find numerous examples of this traditional interpretation, as well as some pictures to color. (I suggest that you print the pictures first, as it is very hard to get the crayon off of the monitor screen.)
The divisions of chapter and verse are not part of the original writings of Luke, they were added much later. Chapter twenty-one of Luke begins with the story of “The Widow’s Mite,” a division that separates it from the context in which it took place. When the story is told within the context where Luke places it, the meaning of her story is somewhat altered. It shifts the story from being an example of generous and sacrificial giving, to one of lament.
Note that Jesus says absolutely nothing to the woman in the way of praise, as one might expect. Jesus looks up as the widow is placing her coins into the treasury. However, he does not praise what she is doing, and there is no invitation to imitate her. Jesus merely states the facts of what has transpired, “’Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.”
The context of this story is the key to its correct understanding and is found in the previous chapter (Luke 20:41-47). Jesus is in the temple teaching and he warns everyone to watch out for the teachers of the law (i.e. scribes). The scribes are spiritual exhibitionists, who like to be seen performing their religious duties, and enjoying their prestige. They offer lavish prayers but “devour widows, houses.” The widow giving her money comes on the heels of Jesus’ condemnation of the scribes for coercing money from and abusing widows. This poor widow is the emphasis and object lesson of just what Jesus has been saying.
There is no commandment ever given that would compel a widow to offer everything that she has to live on. What would have compelled her to do this? Not her love of God, though I am sure she loved God. It was the teachings of the scribes that led her to do this. Jesus is not praising the woman for what she has done; he is lamenting the religious system that has perpetrated this injustice. Widows in first century Palestine were the most vulnerable people in their society. If she had no children to care for her, the burden fell to the deceased husband’s family. If they did not take her in, she would be left with no support at all. Often the widow would be left with only property and the remainder of her dowry.
As with prosperity preachers and some less than honorable television evangelists today, the elderly, the poor and the most vulnerable are their easiest targets for gain. They are often specifically targeted because they are the ones most in need of God’s help. The charlatans and shysters of our day may be more technologically adept, but many of the scribes had the same intent. They could line their pockets, while looking righteous. The scribes would leave someone with no means of support remaining. What was this widow going to do when she left the temple?
In his ministry Jesus constantly sides with those who are most vulnerable in society. I believe that he calls us to do the same today. Who will speak out against those who line their pockets while taking advantage of the poor? Am I willing to do it? Are you?
The painting is by James Jacques Tissot (French painter and illustrator, 1836-1902). His paintings of Christ are owned by the Brooklyn Museum, New York, New York.