Widow's mite

Thu, 05/06/2014 - 12:22 -- James Oakley

If I'm right, the so-called "story of the widow's mite" (Mark 12:41-44) is one of the most abused passages in the New Testament.

We must read this story in its context.


Immediately before the incident, Jesus has been warning people about the scribes of his day. They seem to be in the job for the perks and the recognition they get. Instead of using their influence to care for the poor, they promote themselves at the expense of the poor. Yet Jesus puts this in a very specific way: They "devour widow's houses".

It's not completely clear how they do this, but in some way their lavish lifestyle is at the expense of those most in need of their help - the widow. (There was no social security in Jesus' day, so widows relied on family and friends to provide for them).

That warning is then followed by the story in question: Many rich people give generously to the temple, with a loud clang, while a widow puts in her entire livelihood - two small coins, that may have otherwise bought her a bite of lunch.


After this scene comes Mark 13. Jesus explains to his disciples, who are acting like tourists with glazed eyes, that the temple structure they admire will be gone within a generation (Mark 13:30).

There are a number of reasons for this, but at its heart it's a fulfilment of Mark 12:1-12. The temple, with its worship structures, had failed to recognise Jesus, God's own son, when he came calling. However the parable Jesus told in Mark 12 pictures the temple leadership as like tenants with a vineyard. Their failure to honour God was seen in their failure to give God the fruit they should have given. The context for the parable is Isaiah 5. There it's clear that the fruit God looks for is justice and compassion; the absence of fruit is seen in land-grabbing abuses that crush the poor.

There's a warning about the scribes (Mark 12:38-40). There's a warning about the future fall of the temple (Mark 13:1-30). In between is the story of a widow giving to the temple the little she had.

A story abused

I've heard this story used so often to speak on Christian giving. The congregation is urged to give to support the work of the church / gospel / ministry among the needy. The widow is brought in to explain that even those with very little can still give greatly. Jesus prized her tiny offering more, because it was the largest in proportion to what she had. So even those in the congregation who are poor can give, and Jesus will value it.

Oh dear. The story is actually critical of worshippers of Jesus' day for fleecing the poor to fund their religious institutions. So it's not on to take that story, and use it ... to urge the poor to give the little they have to fund the religious institutions of our day.

If this sermon has anything to say on a Sunday when giving is the theme, it's this: "If you're here today, and you struggle to get by from day to day, please pass the offering plate by. This isn't for you. If your needs are desperately acute, please help yourself to something in that offering plate. We are giving to serve people, and the last thing we want to do is to make your needs greater."

If, at that point, the person who is on the bread line says: "But I've experienced so much from God; he's the most generous giver I could ever know; I want to give something small back", then nobody should stop them. That's responding to God's generosity from the heart. But unless God's grace is driving them to give, we shouldn't be using a story like this to try and coerce them to do so.


Over to you...

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Jonny Kingsman's picture

In the Greek, she didn't give 'her entire livelihood', but 'her whole life'. I think this makes a difference to the interpretation, although I haven't worked out exactly what it is yet. Justin Mote in his Read Mark Learn notes summarises the teaching of ch12 as 'Give God his due' - it would seem an appropriate text for a giving sermon in that case!

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