The Example of the Widow’s Mite: An Example of What?
The Gospel lectionary reading for November 7th, when we will be observing All Saints’ Day and using the lectionary readings for that occasion, is the scene from St. Mark’s Gospel when a poor widow makes a generous, sacrificial offering to the Temple. In response to the two small copper coins falling into the Temple offering boxes, Jesus gathers the disciples around him and says, “Truly I tell you this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on (Mark 12:43-44).”
How many of us have been taught that this scene is exemplary, that we are to follow the poor widow’s generosity in our own life of financial stewardship? I have heard these many times. How nice to find this reading at the conclusion of our stewardship season for 2022. Have you given as this widow has given, from poverty and destitution? Was your giving really even sacrificial? Sadly, at least for those who want to manipulate Scripture for financial gain, that is not at all what we should take from this often-misinterpreted passage. The widow’s offering is indeed an example. It is an example of how not to give, and above all an example to the Church and her leaders for how not to receive financial gifts. It is an example of precisely the kind of cruel, wicked corruption that Jesus Christ has come to upend and destroy.
The common interpretation of the widow’s offering as an example of how to give only makes sense if we completely ignore the context of this scene. In the scene immediately before the widow’s offering, Jesus warns his disciples to “beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation (Mark 12:38-40).” Immediately following the widow’s offering, Jesus exits the Temple, and predicts the Temple’s destruction. “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down (Mark 13:2).”
This order of events surrounding the widow’s offering is shared in all of the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Jesus looks to the religious leaders of the Temple and reflects on their corruption, taking care to note that it is vulnerable widows in particular who fall victim to it while they themselves wear beautiful clothing and sit in fine seats at feasts. A vulnerable widow then makes her offering, and in response Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple.
In other words, the widow’s offering is an appalling example of the corruption of the Temple, one that is directly related to its destruction at the hands of the Roman Emperor not long after Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. God will not tolerate the abuse of the poor, especially by the Temple, or the Church. It is a tragedy that for much of the Church’s history, her clergy have enjoyed opulence while those under their spiritual care go hungry. The leaders of the Temple, and any clergy who follow their example, are like the abusive shepherds of Ezekiel 34, who devour their flocks instead of caring for them. The Church is called to care for its vulnerable members, not to bleed them dry.
The appropriate response to this passage then is not to demand a sacrifice like that of the widow, but quite the opposite. If you are in a similar position as this widow, please do not give more than you can. Contributing out of destitution is not a virtue, and God is not a God who has come to us to burden us, but to lift off our burdens. His is the life of sacrifice, ours is the life of thanksgiving.