The Myth of the Widow’s Mite
I’ve read endless commentaries on this story and have heard many pastors preach on it. Usually it has to do with some form of the merits of sacrificial giving, and I can’t get behind that at all. That understanding doesn’t make sense to me, even though that seems to be the universal application for this text. This story is seemingly always used to tell us that we ought to give the way this widow gave, or some variation thereof, and I cannot see any basis in the text for reaching that conclusion. All these pastors are wrong. All the commentaries are wrong. And I’ll show you why.
“And He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury. And He saw a certain poor widow putting in two small copper coins. And he said, ‘Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all of them, for they all out of their surplus put into the offering, but she out of her poverty put in all that she had to live on.’” Luke 21:1-4.
To set the stage, this is all going down on Wednesday of Passion Week, which is the final week of Jesus’ life. On Monday He entered the city, on Tuesday He cleansed the temple, and all day Wednesday He has been teaching the multitudes in the temple area and has been confronted by the false religious leaders of Judaism. By this point his ministry had winded down and was effectively over. There are no more gospel invitations or any more clarifications to the crowds and to the leaders. They’ve all rejected him, and there’s a finality to it, and all that’s left is Jesus preaching an extended message of destruction and judgment upon them, which will come to pass 40 years hence.
In fact, the last words of chapter 20 are clearly words of judgment, “And in the hearing of all the people he said to his disciples, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” Luke 20:45-47. Luke is pretty gracious though, because Mark gives us the fuller account of the dangers of these false religious leaders, some 39 verses after this went down. He pronounced judgment on the leaders and therefore judgment on the nation for following those leaders and rejecting Him. And so what we see is that sandwiched between the condemnation of the false leaders and the pronunciation of judgment is a little story of a widow dropping two copper pennies into an offering receptacle in the temple. It is somewhat of an odd place to find such a story, and so we need to ask why it’s there and what it has do do with anything. How does something like this fit? Why does Jesus inject this moment of reflection on a widow giving an offering in the temple into this section between a diatribe against false leaders and all the people that follow them, and a pronunciation of judgment on the temple, on the city and on the nation?
Universally commentators will tell us that Jesus is giving us a little glimpse of true worship in the middle of the false worship that dominates the temple. They tell us that it’s a beautiful little story in the midst of ugliness. A little light in the midst of darkness, an illustration of giving till it hurts, contrasted with the selfishness of the spiritual leaders. This is the traditional, universal explanation of this passage with some variation. And you can’t really escape this. Some say that Jesus is teaching that the measure of a gift is not how much you give but how much you have after you give. Others say that the true measure is the self-denial involved; the cost to the individual which is a just another way to say the first one. They say the percentage given is really what the issue is relative to one’s expression of self-denial in that percentage. Obviously, the woman gave the highest percentage [everything] and so they make it about that. Another possibility related to the other two, is that the true measure of any gift is the attitude with which you give it. Is it selfless? Humble? Surrender? Expressing love for God, devotion to God and trust in God? The widow, we are told, had the least left behind, gave the highest percentage and must have had the best attitude. It’s always about this. Whenever someone preaches the story on the widows mite, it will always be one of these things. You know that’s true; pick your poison- you’re going to get a sermon on the importance of giving and giving extravagantly. There’s only one problem.
It’s wrong. That’s not what’s happening here. Look- in spite of the popularity of these views, none of these explanations makes any sense. They just don’t. I don’t get it at all and I can’t help but feel that everything that’s said about this is being imposed on the text and is absolutely ridiculous. And here’s why; Jesus never made any of those points. Jesus never said anything about what’s left behind, what percentage, what attitude, or that we should do likewise and give everything. He didn’t. Jesus never makes any of those points. He does not say the rich gave relatively too little and that they had too much left over. He doesn’t say the rich gave too low a percent. He doesn’t say the widow gave the right amount. He doesn’t say the rich had a bad attitude and the widow had a good attitude, or good spirit. He doesn’t say that.
In fact, He doesn’t say anything about their giving except that she gave more than everybody. He doesn’t say why or with what attitude, or whether she should have, or shouldn’t have, or they should have, or shouldn’t have. Her outward action is all that you see. It is no more or less good, bad, indifferent, humble, proud, selfish, unselfish than anybody else’s act. There is no judgment made on her act as to its true character. There is nothing said about her attitude or her spirit. She could be acting out of devotion. She could be acting out of love. She could be acting out of guilt. She could be acting out of fear. She could be acting out of pride. We don’t know because Jesus doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t say anything about the rich, doesn’t say anything about the widow, doesn’t draw any conclusions, doesn’t develop any principles, doesn’t command anything, doesn’t define anything. Why? Because none of that matters.
The only thing I can conclude is if Jesus wanted to say any of that here, He could have said it. If He wanted to say “Now you need to give like the widow, she had a good attitude and she gave a maximum percentage and what she had left behind was little. This is the kind of sacrificial giving that we’re after.” He doesn’t say that. The story then is not designed to teach any of those things. It’s not designed to teach us about percentages, about how much you have left over, about attitudes. It’s not designed to teach anything about giving or about tithing or giving of ourselves. If there is one thing apparent here it is that she gave everything. So if there’s one lesson that would be obvious and wouldn’t need to be stated, it is that God expects you to give 100 percent of everything that you have and posses.
That’s ridiculous. That’s irresponsible. That’s foolish. It’s not designed to talk about the principles of giving. There’s only one comment that Jesus makes, she gave with her two copper coins relatively a great deal more than all the others because all the others gave out of their surplus, which means they had some left. She gave out of her poverty all she had to live on. That’s all there is. No comment that the Lord appreciated her. No comment that the Lord loved her, commended her. No comment that she was now in the Kingdom of God. No invitation to the disciples to reach in to their little money bags and go up there and throw in everything they had because it was good enough for the widow, it should be good enough for the disciples of Jesus. And if she was truly spiritual, they should be truly spiritual as well.
For these reasons, the traditional explanations of this text make no sense to me at all. One thing I do know is this; God doesn’t expect you to give 100 percent of what you have so that you have absolutely nothing left and you are utterly and completely destitute. But that’s the only obvious principle here if you’re going to draw a principle. Besides, why would you inject the principle in giving in a context like this? This is no place to interject, “Oh by the way, a few words on giving.” What in the world does that have to do with anything? Jesus makes no comment about giving except that she gave more than everybody else relative to what she had. She is not commended. They are not condemned. No one’s attitude or spirit in the giving is discussed. And no principle regarding giving is drawn by our Lord. The narrative is not intended to deal with any of those matters. The reason the Lord doesn’t say anything about it is that’s not what it’s about. And if you look at the context before and after, this is all about the condemnation of wicked spiritual leaders and a corrupt religious system that is about to be destroyed. In fact, in verse 5, the passage immediately after this, some were talking about the temple, that it was adorned with beautiful stones and votive gifts, and He said, “As for these things which you’re looking at, the days will come in which there will be not one stone upon another which will not be torn down.”
So that is what it’s not about. It’s not about giving your all, giving until it hurts, giving so that you have little left, etc. It’s not about any of that at all. Which I suppose raises the question “If not that, then what IS it about?” I’ll answer that tomorrow in part II of this post.