“this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury;for they gave out of their surplus, but she, out of her poverty, gave all she owned, all she had to live on.”
We have historically assumed Jesus is commending the widow’s example to us. We typically interpret the significance of the story just like Joy Allmond does on the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association blog:
What matters to God is our heart toward our money and our possessions. Do we see them as ours, or as His? Regardless of how much we give to Kingdom work–whether it is $10 or $10,000–Jesus makes it obvious to us in Luke 21:1-4 [the story of the Widow’s mite] that He is most pleased with those who had to sacrifice to give that $10. What is your “mite?” Are you sowing sacrificially from your resources?
The question we must ask about the context is: Why does the Gospel of Mark place the story of Jesus watching Temple treasury donations (Mark 12:41-44) between his condemnation of Jewish religious leaders (Mark 12:38-40) and his prediction of the Temple’s demolition (Mark 13)? When you read the story in this context, you find verbal connections between the widow’s gift to the Temple and Jesus’ condemnatory proclamations. Jesus is not talking about generosity or self-sacrificial love before or after the story of the widow. He is talking about how corrupt the religious leaders are who control the Temple and how the Temple is going to be completely destroyed in a future act of divine judgment.
Here is what Jesus says immediately before the widow’s story in Mark 12:41-44:
“Beware of the scribes who like walking around in long robes and respectful greetings in the market places, and chief seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets, who devour widows’ houses, and for appearance’s sake offer long prayers; these will receive greater condemnation.”
As He was going out of the temple, one of His disciples said to Him, “Teacher, behold what wonderful stones andwhat wonderful buildings!” And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left upon another which will not be torn down.” – Mark 13:1-2
Jesus is angry at other Jewish teachers who are persuading widows to give all their money to the Temple bank account. He sees a corrupt religious system that no longer honors God’s heart to care for the needy. Teachers of the Law no longer honor the intent of the Law. Instead, the system has created wealthy religious celebrities who construct lavish buildings and pray in long robes to puff up their public reputation, while the poor go bankrupt. That’s why he isn’t impressed by the “wonderful stones” and “wonderful buildings” in the Temple complex.
Jesus is intentionally highlighting the widow’s gift to the Temple as an illustration of how messed up Jerusalem is. He is condemning Jerusalem’s leaders just like Amos and Isaiah and Ezekiel did before him. The widow’s gift is evidence of what Ezekiel saw in the Temple over 600 years earlier: “The people of the land have practiced oppression and committed robbery, and they have wronged the poor and needy and have oppressed the sojourner without justice” (Ezekiel 22:29). In that context of prophetic judgment against Jerusalem, the widow’s offering takes on a much different meaning than we first suspect.
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.
The widow’s offering is an illustration of injustice not generosity. The widow’s livelihood was being devoured by wealthy religious teachers just like TV evangelists today convince poor people to send in their money so they can use it to buy private airplanes. The widow may have had an obedient heart, but Jesus cared more about correcting the corruption. God’s people were supposed to be caring for the poor not taking from them. As Kirk MacGregor writes in his critique of how Word-Faith Movement prosperity preachers abuse this text,
“there are many passages in the Bible which, in context, teach that Christians should give, and give sacrificially, to meet the financial needs of poor members of the body of Christ, the poor in general, people who serve in vocational ministry, the local church, and the global church (e.g.2 Cor. 8–9; Rom. 15:25-33; Matt. 25:31-46; 1 Tim. 5:17-18; Acts 2:44-45; 4:32–5:11). However, the account of the widow’s mite is simply not one of them. Rather, this text stands in the prophetic tradition of condemning unscrupulous religious leaders who steal from the poor under the guise of their giving to God (e.g. Amos 5:11-12; 8:3-10; Isa. 3:14-15; 10:1-2; Jer. 23:1-2; Ezek. 22:26-31; Psa. 10:1-9; Prov. 22:16, 22; 1 Tim. 6:3-10; 2 Peter 2:2-3, 14-15; Jude 11).”
During his earlier ministry, Jesus attacked the practice of Korban where religious elites dedicated their possessions to the Temple rather than using their resources to care for aging parents in poverty (Mark 7:9-13). He wanted justice and mercy to replace tithing regulations that concentrated wealth among the religious elites (Matthew 23:23). He was on a mission to relieve widows from the “heavy burdens” placed on them by leaders who loved privilege and lacked self-sacrificing servanthood (Matthew 23:1-12). That is a mission we must continue today.
The widow’s offering reminds us that generosity without discernment is not commendable. Self-sacrificial giving to misguided causes doesn’t please the Lord. God wants justice and mercy embodied by people who walk humbly before the Lord (see Micah 6:8). He doesn’t want Christian celebrities who build beautiful buildings and publicly demonstrate their religiosity. He doesn’t want people in poverty giving their last cent to corrupt Christian industrial complexes.
The original purpose of the tithe was to care for the poor not rob them under the auspices of religious devotion. In Deuteronomy 26:12, God’s people were commanded every third year to give their tithe to the poor, both widows and impoverished Levitical priests (see Chris Wright's Old Testament Ethics for the People of God). James 1:27 makes it clear: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before our Lord and Father is to care for orphans and widows in their distress.” Jesus doesn’t add more stress to those in poverty by asking for a donation. He believes in exactly what God mandated in Deuteronomy 15:11, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land’” (cf. Isa. 25:4; 58:7; Psa. 41:1; 72:4, 12; Prov. 19:17; 21:13; 28:27; 31:9).
This demand for justice could hardly be more relevant today in churches across the globe where pastors persuade poor people to give them all their money. In fact, the government in Angola drafted a law in 2018 to require “proper training” for pastors because too many have devised schemes to take money from the poor with promises that God will bless their financial sacrifice. They sell water bottles blessed by the pastor for exorbitant prices to accumulate money for themselves. Who knows how the Angolan government will define “proper training” for pastors, but something must be done to protect the most vulnerable in Angolan society. The path won’t be easy, but it is a path that Jesus blazed in first-Century Israel. It is a path we must blaze today. It is the reason I preach the same sermon Why Does God Bless People? every time I get to speak at Majority World churches plagued by “Christian” voices trying to “devour widows’ houses.”
In the United States, we could compare the widow’s Temple offering to a poor lady who gives money she needs for food to a ministry with large surpluses and an extravagant CEO salary. One big ministry in the USA had a $189 million surplus in 2017 after raising excess money for hurricane relief, and they only plan to spend a third of that surplus to help more people in 2018. Their low-income donors actually need that money more than the ministry does for its cash reserve accounts and $1 million CEO salary. If you want to know which ministries fall into this category, contact me.
NOTE: I am not the first Bible scholar to discuss the meaning of this pericope in the literary contexts of Mark and Luke. This same interpretation has been readily adopted over the past 35 years as Jesus’ larger message of judgment against corrupt Jewish leaders in Jerusalem has been more commonly recognized in the Gospels. See Emma Crossen’s “Be Like The Widow” or Addison Wright’s “The Widow’s Mites: Praise or Lament? – A Matter of Context”.