Missing the Point of the Widow’s Mite

Today’s Gospel from Mark is a bit more complicated than most people might initially think. The story about the “widow’s mite,” when Jesus and his disciples sit near the Temple and see an impoverished widow put in two coins that in and of themselves are not worth much, but presumably represent a significant portion of the woman’s resources, presents us with a comment from Jesus that has been largely interpreted in one particular way.  Jesus responds to this scene with the line: “Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.” A classic reading of this remark has rendered the widow a hero, someone worth emulating, a selfless giver who gives until it hurts, and so on. However, this may not be what Jesus is really getting at in this passage.

We cannot read the story about the widow’s offering without taking into consideration the few verses that immediately precede this text.

In the course of his teaching Jesus said to the crowds,
“Beware of the scribes, who like to go around in long robes
and accept greetings in the marketplaces,
seats of honor in synagogues,
and places of honor at banquets.
They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext
recite lengthy prayers.
They will receive a very severe condemnation.”

Prior to witnessing the widow’s offering, Jesus had been teaching his disciples about some systems of social inequity, of imbalance in the religious, political, and social structures of his day. This is not simply to contrast the wealthy with the poor, those who have a “surplus of wealth” from which they offer their gifts at the Temple versus those who have only their subsistence from which to draw. No, Jesus is painting a much starker picture that is, in effect, more about the wealthy scribes than it is about the poor, destitute widow.

I would venture to say that if you think that this Gospel passage is about the widow or about how honorable the poor are for being generous, you’re missing the point.

The Gospel passage for this Sunday in full (Mark 12:38-44) is a two-parter. In Act I (to borrow the theatrical division popular with NPR’s This American Life) we see a religious and political system that is run by a few wealthy and powerful individuals in the culture. These are the entrepreneurs of the religious establishment, who “as a pretext” to fleecing the poor and the vulnerable “recite lengthy prayers” in show of their religious commitments and to paint the financial exchange as “of God.”

These scribes about which Jesus warns the disciples to be wary use their social location, power, and wealth only for themselves. Sure, Jesus points out, they “give to the church” (to use a modern phrase), but they do so only in the most superficial and painless way. Their real concern is themselves, maintaining their wealth, and shoring up their hegemony at the expense of the poorest and most vulnerable of their time.

Jesus clearly condemns this.

Then we get Act II. Here Jesus and the disciples are hanging out across from the Temple treasury, not necessarily on purpose, but they happen to be there and happen to do a little “people watching.” They see what’s going on, who is offering what. And, as if by chance or coincidence, a poor widow (which was, in truth, the only type of widow, because they were often counted among the poorest, most vulnerable, and voiceless in first-century palestinian society — they have no security, no claim on property, no protection, and little resources) comes and puts in a sum that represents all that she has.

This is not an opportunity to praise the widow, but a chance to lament the disgusting injustice that creates the condition for this scene. The widow’s offering is an illustration of what Jesus was just talking about — the religious, political, and social establishment has systematically corrupted her way of thinking such that she apparently feels compelled to give far beyond what likely hurts her and anyone, say children, that might depend on her.

The real question that lies beneath this Sunday’s Gospel is: What is the reason that someone who has nothing feels compelled to give from that lack to the Temple (or church or charity or whatever)? Who seeks to benefit from this exchange? We know who certainly stands to lose.

A reading of Jesus’s comments that appears to hold the widow up on a pedestal is, I believe, a perpetuation of this injustice that inflicted the widow of Jesus’s time and continues to affect the poor and vulnerable in our day.

A few years back, while reflecting on this reading, I wrote about a New York Times Magazine article that highlighted the myth of philanthropy and the “benefits to the poor” of having the super wealthy (“Today’s Parable of the Widow’s Mite“). What this well-researched article revealed was that the super wealthy, the wealthy and ostentatious “scribes” of today, actually give less than those who have middle and lower incomes. Most absurdly, what Jesus observed in his day remains true today — those with the least continue to give more, by percentage of their resources, than the wealthy!

Jesus is not endorsing this behavior, but blatantly naming it for what it is (especially when we read the full text with vv. 38-40 included about the Scribes) and challenging us to see the structures that allow this to continue. What can we do to make society and the our faith communities more equitable? Why do we let this continue to happen such that the poor give until it hurts and the wealthy seem to so often benefit from this self-defeat of the impoverished?

Hopefully this Sunday we don’t miss the point of the widow’s mite, but instead follow Jesus’s line of thinking and make a difference in our world.

Photo: by Amy Pectol
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9 Responses to “Missing the Point of the Widow’s Mite”

  1. Great insight, by idealizing the widow’s “goodness” it takes the focus off the economic injustices of the scribes who eagerly “devour” those same widows. We (the nonruling class) have been taught to serve them (the ruling class) and do it from our poverty until it hurts while they give without touching their real wealth.

  2. Dan, I’m concerned that this interpretation may not fully integrate what it means when someone is found to be blessed with the bounty of the kingdom. Jesus may be pointing out the widow as someone who recognizes, as St. Francis did and as the scribes did not, that the blessings of God in the heavenly kingdom far outweighed anything that she or the disciples could attain from the people considered more worthy or better off. Christ was perhaps trying to remind His disciples that all they have comes from God – all is a gift to be received with joy. Thus, the way of Christ shows that this widow is not some hapless victim of society; rather, she is someone who recognized God’s presence in her life because of (or despite) her poverty. She is not so much hapless as a revelation of someone who is completely and utterly dependent upon God (who is always trustworthy). In that way, she would be called one of the anawim or “lowly ones” of God. Mary, the Mother of God, was described in just the same way. While society did need (and does indeed today) to change its ways so as to better reflect the kingdom of heaven here on earth, it can only do when it is able to perceive how all things are a gift and blessing from God. In that way, her love for God is revealed in the way she is able to give everything she has for His sake and for the sake of His people. It would thus prepare the disciples to better understand the love God has for His Son, when He is sent to die upon the cross.

    • Hi Nancy,

      I appreciate your interpretation, but my post is rooted in the scholarly commentaries of the text itself — yes, there is something to be said for giving of one’s self, certainly an important move, but as the theological tradition has shown (and most people ignore) there is a difference between abject poverty (widows in first-century palestine society) and evangelical poverty (Francis of Assisi, Jesus of Nazareth, Mary, etc.). Jesus in vv. 38-40 makes it clear that the wealthy and the powerful are the systemic cause of this abject poverty. Jesus never hails the widow as virtuous, but merely states the obvious — she give more in relation to what she has when compared to those who give from their surplus. Much to think about here.

      Peace and good!

  3. There is a similar, but stronger, interpretation which is suggested in Ched Myers BINDING THE STRONG MAN. The woman doesn’t “feel” compelled to give but that she is “being impoverished by her obligations to the temple cultus.” Because the leaders “devour the estates of widows” they are responsible for her poverty and for impoverishing herself even more by put her last two pennies. As Myers says, “scribal piety has been debunked as a thin veil for economic opportunism and exploitation.” (p. 321)

  4. Rev. Robert Morris Says:

    I just ran across this angle of interpretation earlier this week, in pondering what to preach about the passage, and find it intriguing, and, granted the context of the whole passage, fairly convincing. I’ve read that there were a dozen or more offering-places in the “Women’s Court,” each for a different purpose, so it would make a difference which place she was giving the offering, and for what purpose. The passage, clearly, doesn’t tell us that. I want to know whether any more is available about Second Temple practice. Meanwhile, you’ve given a clear and eloquent statement about this ‘take’ on the passage. Thanks.

  5. FRed Close Says:

    Your point about yhr commrnt being a lament is even stronger, Fr, Dan, if you follow the context, Right after this, when a disciple praises the Temple, Jesus prophesies that there wuill not be left a stone upon a stone,

  6. What wonderful insights! Thank you so much…

    Ann Myers

  7. OK but the problem that is not being discussed or perhaps avoided, is how should christians respond to this situation as it occurs in our culture today and has in general occurred down the aages (“The poor you will always have with you”). St John Chrysostom advises not to sign up to achieving this through government means (Government are clearly the cause of this problem – most politicians decry poverty and always cry that it can only be solved through government, but they achieve it by impoverishing everyone by ‘fiat’) but through changing the hearts and minds of people to understand that everything comes from God – here is his quote:
    “SHOULD we look to kings and princes to put right the inequalities between rich and poor?
    Should we require soldiers to come and seize the rich person’s gold and distribute it among his destitute neighbors?
    Should we beg the emperor to impose a tax on the rich so great that it reduces them to the level of the poor and then to share the proceeds of that tax among everyone?
    Equality imposed by force would achieve nothing, and do much harm. Those who combined both cruel hearts and sharp minds would soon find ways of making themselves rich again.
    Worse still, the rich whose gold was taken away would feel bitter and resentful; while the poor who received the gold from the hands of soldiers would feel no gratitude, because no generosity would have prompted the gift.
    Far from bringing moral benefit to society, it would actually do moral harm.
    Material justice cannot be accomplished by compulsion, a change of heart will not follow. The only way to achieve true justice is to change people’s hearts first—and then they will joyfully share their wealth.”
    The trap these days is that the church so often gets sucked into ‘collaboration” with the very people Jesus is criticizing, instead of being more focused on the hearts and minds of the flock. I think this is what Jesus was inherently teaching his disciples.

  8. How long are we going to continue to ignore ‘the silent have-not’?

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