What’s the Real Story: the Widow’s Mite or the Temple’s Might? — Faith and Finances Ministry

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Author: Patrick Blair

I recently read Douglas Jacoby’s newsletter where he wrote a very thought-provoking article entitled: The Widow is Heroic, but Also a Victim.  Douglas provided key support for me in writing Faith and Finances, especially in the area of church giving.  His website has a plethora of Bible teaching and insights.  Forgive the dry humor, but I wanted to throw in my two cents on the subject.

We’ve all been inspired and challenged by the poor widow who put her last two coins into the Temple treasury.  Jesus recognized her example, so shouldn’t we aspire to it?  I’ll be gut-level honest: I’ve never felt good about the use of the poor widow’s example to inspire giving.  I’m sure my selfish gut reaction plays a big role in that, but it’s never made sense to me.

This sentence in Doug’s article sums up the poor widow’s situation: “One who should have been honored and supported by the system was instead taken advantage of.”  It is important to try to understand what Jesus was really trying to say by reading the passage in context.

45 Then, with the crowds listening, he turned to his disciples and said, 46 “Beware of these teachers of religious law! For they like to parade around in flowing robes and love to receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces. And how they love the seats of honor in the synagogues and the head table at banquets. 47 Yet they shamelessly cheat widows out of their property and then pretend to be pious by making long prayers in public. Because of this, they will be severely punished.”

While Jesus was in the Temple, he watched the rich people dropping their gifts in the collection box. Then a poor widow came by and dropped in two small coins.

“I tell you the truth,” Jesus said, “this poor widow has given more than all the rest of them. For they have given a tiny part of their surplus, but she, poor as she is, has given everything she has.”

Some of his disciples began talking about the majestic stonework of the Temple and the memorial decorations on the walls. But Jesus said, “The time is coming when all these things will be completely demolished. Not one stone will be left on top of another!” Luke 20:45 – 21:6 (NLT)

What’s a mite anyway?  Most newer translations say, “small coins.”  The term came from the King James Version, which refers to a mite (an ancient Greek lepta), which was the smallest of copper coins.  They were like tiny pennies. 

So, after reading the passage in context, do you think Jesus’ point was to praise the widow and give us an example that we should strive for (giving in the face of abject poverty)?  I think not.  The widow was cheated by the teachers of the religious law.  Jesus was disgusted by the situation.

Paul Penly aptly writes: The widow is a victim of oppression not an example to follow. We typically assume Jesus said or implied, “Go and do likewise.” But he didn’t. What did he say? He emphasized that the widow “out of her poverty, put in all she owned, all she had to live on.” The repetitive “all she owned, all she had to live on” draws the observant reader to Jesus’ message. This widow no longer had anything left to live on because Temple teachers had convinced her to donate it to their extravagant slush fund.

Jesus’ message was revolutionary in nature, telling the disciples that the corrupt Temple system was coming to an end, so they would never operate the Church way.  The Temple was indeed destroyed in 70 A.D., while Christianity grew throughout the world.  As with any passage taken out of context, it is dangerous to use the widow’s example as a lesson on how we should give.  Don’t do it!  If anything, it is a warning against religious systemic corruption and lesson on how not to run your personal finances.

To end on a positive note, I’m inspired and challenged to see that God has a relative view of our hearts and actions.  Jesus’ view was that the widow was giving more than all the rich people.  God knows exactly what is going on!  God isn’t fooled by religious virtue signaling.  God knows our personal situations and is looking at our actions and hearts.

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