The Most Abused Poor Widow in History

As I spent a lot of time in Mark's gospel last year, and then in Luke this year, I've noticed a story which both of them tell, and both of them tell it in a way which makes it obvious that the meaning they were trying to attach to the story is very different from what I had always thought it meant.

It isn't an obscure story, but one that is likely to be familiar to many of you. Here is Mark's version (and Luke's is very close to it):

Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.

Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:41-44, NIV)

If we read this story by itself, we are likely to come away with the same conclusion that I had always had in the past: Jesus was praising the widow for her sacrificial generosity, giving "all that she had to live on" for the sake of God's temple. But, if we want to avoid committing biblical malpractice, we can't just read the story by itself. Instead, when we read it as part of the overall stories that Mark and Luke were telling, it takes on a very different meaning.

To help point us toward the meaning Mark and Luke intended in telling the account of this poor widow, here are the three things I noticed which first made me wonder if all of the things I'd ever thought about this story might have been off-center:

First, despite the sermons that we've all possibly heard (or some of us may have even preached!) which praise the woman for her sacrificial generosity, Jesus never commended her. He simply sat there watching, noticing what was happening, and pointing it out to his disciples. Neither story says that he ever spoke to the woman. He never even said what she did was good. He simply commented that her few cents cost her everything.

Second, the more I've dug into the gospels, the more I've realized that their authors didn't choose the words they used–nor tell the story in the way they did–by accident. Mark has particularly intrigued me with his story telling ability, as at times he will put stories next to each other, apparently so that their meanings bounce off of one another, each filling in gaps in the other.

In light of that, we should pay a lot of attention to the stories that are put next to the account of this poor widow, and Mark and Luke each use the same accounts to precede and follow this one.

Here is the passage immediately before Jesus' comment about the widow's offering:

As he taught, Jesus said, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.” (Mark 12:38-40, emphasis added)

So Jesus warned his disciples to watch out for people like this who, among other things, devour widows' houses, then a poor widow came and put in "all she had to live on" in order to support the system that supported the people Jesus was warning his disciples against.

Third, we've got to pay attention to the stage of Jesus' life in which this occurs, during the final week before his crucifixion. He had very recently ridden into Jerusalem to the cheering crowds who welcomed him as their new king. Only the Jewish king or a high priest would have the kind of authority to go into the temple and make all of its regular business come to a halt, which is exactly what Jesus did after arriving in the city. Then, he spent the next couple of days teaching in the temple, mostly about the destruction that was sure to come to it and to Jerusalem if its people failed to change their ways and heed his warnings. Jesus was saying and doing extremely provocative things against the temple and its leadership, and the authorities would not allow someone who said and did those kinds of things–especially right there in the temple!–to live.

Putting the widow's offering in that context, notice the verses that come next:

As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”

“Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” (Mark 13:1-2, NIV)

So, if we put these three passages together (in the context of intense war of words at the temple between Jesus and the religious authorities), both Mark and Luke give us this sequence of events:

  • Jesus continued teaching in the temple, and warned his disciples to watch out for these teachers of the law, because "...they devour widows' houses..."
  • Then he pointed out a poor widow putting the last money she had to live on as an offering into the temple treasury.
  • Then, as they were leaving the temple and one of his disciples remarked how impressive the temple was, Jesus said that it was going to be demolished.

So, to make my point (or, actually to rescue Mark's and Luke's point): Instead of holding the poor widow up as an example for the rest of us to follow, Jesus pointed her out as someone who was being unjustly abused by a crooked religious system that refused to heed his warnings and was about to come crashing down. She gave all she had to live on, presumably because she had been taught it was her duty to God to give those offerings, and she gave them to support a religious system which–instead of devouring her house–was supposed to have existed for the inseparable purposes of worshipping God and caring for people exactly like her.