How many times have you heard 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 virtues 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). While I am sure that what I taught and preached was true, I have come to believe that it is not the best interpretation of this event from Jesus’ ministry.
This time I noticed a few things I had not picked up on before. Jesus said absolutely nothing to the woman in the way of praise, as one might expect. He had called his disciples to him for a teaching moment, as the widow was placing her coins into the treasury. However, he did not praise what she did, 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 more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”
The context of this story is the key to its correct understanding. 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 lead a widow to offer everything she has. 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 had filled her with this sense of obligation. 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.
In the world today, prosperity preachers (and some less than honorable television evangelists) prey upon the elderly and the poor. These people are the most vulnerable, and are the 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 we see today 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 be willing to do it? Are you?
Photo is of a Jewish Lepton – the Widow’s Mite