The Myth of the Widow’s Mite
[repost from a few years ago. edited for clarity and brevity]
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. All these leaders have rejected him. There is 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 in 70AD. 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 incident. 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 to 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.
That’s not what’s happening here. In spite of the popularity of these views, none of these explanations makes any sense. Here’s why; Jesus never makes any of those points that peopel try to make about the widow and her offering. Jesus never said anything about what’s left behind, what percentage, what attitude, or that we should do likewise and give everything. 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.
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. Nothing indicates that it is 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.
There’s only one comment that Jesus makes, and that is that 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 or 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.
Who among us would argue that it’s normative for God to expect you to give 100 percent of what you have so that you have absolutely nothing left and you are utterly and completely destitute? Anyone? Because 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. . 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 I think it’s pretty clear what this text is not about. This passage has nothing to do with Jesus commending a widow for giving much, and exhorting us to do likewise. That is nowhere in the text at all. That’s just made up. It doesn’t even have to do with giving at all, and I’ll make the case that this is not a obscure of difficult passage to understand. It’s not even a particularly deep or insightful observation, but rather is simple. In the midst of his pronouncements of judgment and woe Jesus saw a widow give more than everybody else. In other words, her involvement in religion cost her more than it cost anybody else because it cost her everything. That’s all it is. It’s just an observation which the disciplines weren’t confused about, as they didn’t even ask any questions about it.
Another thing to think about is that it seems the assumption in interpreting this as a model for Christian giving is that Jesus was pleased with what she did. But we don’t see that anywhere. It doesn’t say that at all. It doesn’t say that Jesus was pleased with her gift. It doesn’t say Jesus was pleased with her attitude or with the heart and mind that she gave this. It doesn’t say anything about His attitude at all, though I would make the case that if anything what this widow did in giving her two copper coins displeased Jesus immensely. I think it angered him and her giving this made his blood boil. When I consider my own life, as a Christian man who loves his God and cares for other people and cares about their needs, I have no tolerance for a morally bankrupt religious system that compels a poor, destitute widow who only had two coins left to buy her food for her next meal to give those two coins to said religious system.
The very idea outrages me. Something has gone terribly wrong in a system that encourages and even demands that. How else am I supposed to feel when I see an impoverished woman give to her religion her last hope for life to go home and perhaps die? I feel sick and repulsed just thinking about it. Listen- any religion that is built on the back of the poor is a false religion. What a sad, misguided, woeful, poor victimized lady. It’s tragic and painful, and I think that’s exactly how Jesus saw it. He saw that corrupt system taking the last two pennies out of a widow’s pocket who in her desperation hoped that maybe in that legalistic system her two coins would buy some blessing. The rabbis had said that with alms you purchase your salvation and so here she is, trying to buy her way into heaven, trying to buy relief from her desperation and her destitution. [Contemporary “evangelists” call this ‘seed faith’- “Give me your money and God will multiply it back to you.”] God doesn’t want a widow to give up her last two cents and you can’t find that concept anywhere in the Bible at all. In fact, that’s the last thing God would want a widow to do.
The system that had developed in Judaism abused poor people on an economic level and a spiritual level. God’s law was never given to impoverish people, but to help them, and that’s why it’s so wretched to see that this woman was part of a system that took the last two cents out of her hand on the pretense that this was necessary to please God; to purchase her salvation and to bring her blessing. She was manipulated by a religious system that was corrupt. This is not an illustration of heartfelt, sacrificial giving that pleases the Lord and this is not a model for all of us to follow. And so something very different is going on here. This is not about Jesus honoring giving, this is about a victim of a corrupt system who is literally made absolutely destitute trying to live up to that system and earn heaven.
Verse 1, “And He looked up,” I think this is important. If you read around this chapter, you see that Jesus just spent a chunk of time leveling blistering attacks against the false teachers, compounded with feeling physical drained and we get the image that he’s tired and exhausted and sad and resigned. So you get the image of Him sitting there in a moment of thought before He turns to pronounce the judgment for all his disciples to hear. And when He looked up, Mark 12:41 says, “He saw opposite, the treasury observing how people were putting money into the treasury.” Jesus had said in Matthew 6 that you were to do your giving in secret but the religious system had developed a very public prominent way to do it and Pharisees came along and had trumpets blown announcing their arrival to give, according to Matthew 6. And so Jesus looks up and there He sees the people coming, the treasury and how people were putting money into the treasury.
Then there is the woman herself; a poor widow. That should sound very familiar to us because a few verses back we see Jesus saying “Beware of the scribes who like to walk around in long robes and love respectful greetings in the market places and chief seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets, who devour widows’ houses” These are people who are building their success monetarily on the backs of widows. And so what happens? Jesus indicts them for their severe abuse of widows, along with the Sadducees, the Pharisees and the scribes who operated the system that abused the poor and the defenseless for whom they had only disdain. We know that these people view any poor widow as being under the judgment of God, -as that’s why she was a poor widow. Furthermore, widows were women and women were second-class, and Pharisees every day prayed, “Lord, make me not a Gentile or a woman.” And because they were widows, they were defenseless and easy prey.
So what does this scene in particular show us? You have Jesus talking about poor widows being devoured and then nearly in the same breath he sees an example of this abuse. To reiterate again; That was all. Nothing is said about her attitude, nothing is said about her spirit, nothing said about whether she did it in desperation or devotion, whether she did it in legalism or love, it doesn’t say anything about that. The Lord doesn’t commend her, doesn’t make her an example, doesn’t validate what she did, doesn’t say it was a worthy spiritual act that greatly pleased Him. All He said was, this religious system is preying on widows, this cost her more than everyone else. She put in relatively, comparatively more than anyone. The religious leaders were devouring widows and the more desperate these poor widows became the more they thought they needed to buy God’s blessing. Belittled by the establishment because they were thought to be in that state because of divine punishment, second-class women, they were defenseless, easily exploited and the system exploited them to the max. And so they took the last two cents of the poor woman and it was all, the end of verse 4 says, she had to live on, it was literally her life. She would probably go home and die.
Jesus isn’t commending her; she’s a victim. He’s not proud of her. He’s not making her an example of sacrificial giving. This is an absurdity. He is observing the corruption of the system that is going to be destroyed under the leadership of these corrupt condemned leaders. They’re exploiting the most defenseless, the most impoverished. Jesus certainly is not saying she gave her last cent and that’s what you should do, of course not. He doesn’t want you to give up everything you’ve got and go home and die. He’s observing the false religion that preys on the weak and the desperate and the defenseless and holds out hope to the hopeless if they just give their money. I don’t think Jesus was happy. I think Jesus was angry. And that’s why He says in verse 6, “As for the things which you’re looking at, the days will come in which there will not be left one stone upon another which will not be torn down.” And the disciples say, “When’s it going to happen?” And He says, “It’s going to happen,” and He describes it in the remainder of the chapter.
I don’t know why pastors insist on reading into this text and eisegeting into it these ideas of the joys of giving all we have. There’s no denying that those ideas are imported. If you saw a widow give her last two cents to some religious organization in the hope that she could purchase salvation or purchase blessing, or buy healing, or buy prosperity, you wouldn’t commend her, you’d want to stop her and you’d want to shut down that religious system that preys on the desperate. This act did not please our Lord. She’s simply been taught falsely and she bought in to a system that destroyed her. No praise is given of her act or her attitude. She’s caught in the corruption of the system at the hands of those wretched leaders. She has given her last coins to a false religion. Jesus is angry. And that’s why He’ll destroy this den of robbers, which goes down in AD 70.
This has to do with a woman giving all she had to a corrupt system, Jesus observing that she had indeed given her all, and reinforcing the idea that what this woman was doing was not right and that she was being preyed on by widow-devourers who were engaged in an ongodly spiritual scam which Jesus condemned and rejected. That’s it.That’s all there is to it. It’s simple and it’s easy to understand and it doesn’t need to be tinkered with or bred with assumed external interpolations in order to be made clear. This passage is not for us. We are not to emulate this woman who is being taken advantage of. If anything it’s a warning to us that we do not do the same, and put not our trust in broken systems that enslave us to works righteousness and the law, but rather put our trust in the loving mercies of Christ alone for the forgiveness of sins and for salvation.