The Widow’s Mite

The gospel writer makes connections by the placement of his stories.

widow's mite
The widow making her temple contribution, by the French illustrator Gustave Doré, 19th century

I never assume that the gospel writers compiled their gospels thoughtlessly. We may think that they just joined one story to another as a jeweler might string a strand of beads. However, that’s not the case. How they place individual stories or sayings in their broader gospel narrative often reveals connections they want us to make between the stories they recount.

A good example is the story Mark tells that we often label the tale of the widow’s mite (Mark 12:41-44). It recounts an incident in Jesus’ life, which Mark places in the events of Holy Week.

Jesus is sitting in the Jerusalem temple, watching the crowds who enter. Many drop a money gift into the temple’s cash box. Those who are affluent drop sizeable amounts. Then a widow makes her donation. It is a tiny sum: just two small coins that are valued what our translations call a penny. (It is hard to know how to value this sum in today’s currency. But think of it as a miniscule value, like two dollar bills.)

Calling his disciples to him, Jesus comments that she has given the most of all. The rich have given large sums, but those sums amount to no great sacrifice for them. The widow, however, has given everything she has, in fact, everything she has to live on.

The text calls us to admire her for her extreme generosity…or her sincere religious devotion. That is what most preachers focus on when they preach this text. But I contend there is much more going on by Mark placing this story where he does.

In the verses preceding (Mark 12:38-40), Jesus has been criticizing the religious elite who make a great display of their religiosity. They expect public esteem. But while the community honors them, they are behind the scenes devouring the property of widows, reducing them to poverty. One is left to wonder if it is one of those very scribes who has in fact reduced this particular widow to her poverty.

In the story that follows the poor widow (Mark 13:1-4) Jesus foresees the destruction of the temple, the very institution the elite are so lavishly supporting. He has already driven the merchants and money changers out of the temple’s courts. Now he foresees the collapse of the whole institution, which has lived off the temple tax and contributions given by people like the widow in our story. Like the barren fig tree, the temple culture has not produced the spiritual fruit God expects from it, despite the lavish sums invested in it.

Mark lays before us this stark contrast between the pious who exploit the poor and the poor who live out a genuine piety. This richness of meaning comes as we read the three stories together and recognize hidden connections between them.

Connections with Other Scripture

The contrast that Mark develops reminds me of the same contrast that the gospel writer Luke develops in his parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). There Jesus tells of a Pharisee who goes to the temple to pray. He lays out before God all the right and pious things he has done, unlike the sinful tax collector standing nearby. Presumably this entitles him to a special divine blessing.

The tax collector, however, sees himself truly, with all his flaws and failures to live up to God’s standards. As a result, he prays, “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.” In no way does he presume he is entitled to any blessing.  Yet, Jesus says, he is the one who returns home in right relationship with God.

We see the same striking contrast between the religious elite and the despised and marginalized ones of society. Both stories make the same point. It is a point that we find constantly repeated in the Old Testament prophets.* Lavish religious piety (and I might add moral scrupulosity) counts for little when that piety and scrupulosity are contradicted by the practice of social injustice. Yet, despite the frequency of this point in Scripture, we Christians, just as much as the ancient Jews, find it hard to root this insight into our core consciousness.


* The classic text is Amos 5:21-24. But Amos is not alone in his message.


The Insult of Second Best

We take God’s name in vain when we offer God anything less than our very best.

I am nearing the end of my journey through the Minor Prophets of the Old Testament. I’ve started the last of the 12, the prophet Malachi.

In the first chapter Malachi denounces those who bring lame, deformed, and diseased animals to the Jerusalem Temple to sacrifice to God. Malachi calls this practice a way they pollute the altar of the Lord.

…you say, “How have we polluted it?” By thinking that the Lord’s table may be despised. When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not wrong? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not wrong? (Malachi 1:7-8)

They are offering to God something less than their very best. They keep the best of their flocks for themselves.

Would they engage in such behavior, he asks, if they were making a gift to their prince or the governor of the land? Would not the prince feel insulted? So how do they think they can get away with offering God–their creator, redeemer, and the ground of their being–something less than the very best?

When they do not offer their best, they despise God’s name, the prophet says. That implies to me that their behavior is a way they violate the third commandment. They employ the name of God in vain.

What is striking about this passage is the prophet’s conviction that God deserves from us our very best, not our second or third best or worse. This is, I believe, one of the logical conclusions we must draw if we take seriously the Shema, the great declaration of faith of Judaism:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)

I also think the prophet expresses a fundamental principle of the spiritual life. If we are offering something up to God, we cannot cut corners. We need to make it the very best we can give. That applies not only to material gifts, but also to our creative endeavors, our work, and our relationships within the faith community.

Now what is our very best varies from person to person, from condition to condition, depending upon the gifts we have been given, whether that is material possessions, talents, or social privileges. What represents the very best for a person of modest gifts and means may be something very different from what it means for an affluent, highly educated, and privileged person. That is the point of Jesus’s comment on the gift of the poor widow in the story recorded in Mark 12:41-44: …she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living.

A Saddening Deception

Let me tell a story that illustrates how giving a deceptive gift to God or to anyone is an insult to the recipient’s dignity and honor. It is a story told me by an Episcopal priest who once ministered in a church in mid-town Manhattan.

His church was an attractive church and therefore became an often requested site for weddings. He had a busy ministry marrying people, at all times during the week. A man asked him to perform his wedding, and the priest gladly consented.

When the ceremony was over, the groom handed the priest an envelope as a token payment for the service the priest had performed. The priest handed the envelope to the bride saying, “I never receive payment for the weddings I perform. When I am given gifts like this, I like to hand it back to the couple I have just married as a small financial investment in their new life together. So I am giving this gift to your bride.”

The bride opened the envelope and found it contained nothing but a folded blank piece of paper.

Though the act did indeed involve an insult to his role as priest , he was not so much offended, he said, as saddened for the bride. She had just said her vows, but she was discovering her marriage starting out on a deceptive note.

If this is how we feel when people try to deceive us in their dealings with us, how much more does God feel saddened by our effort to deceive him? The prophet calls this a way we sniff at God.

“What a weariness this is,” you say, and you sniff at me, says the Lord of hosts. You bring what has been taken by violence or is lame or sick, and this you bring as your offering! Shall I accept that from your hand? says the Lord. Cursed be the cheat who has a male in the flock and vows to give it, and yet sacrifices to the Lord what is blemished; for I am a great King, says the Lord of hosts, and my name is reverenced among the nations. (Malachi 1:13-14)

The application of this prophetic principle to our life today has multiple implications, if we just think about it.