Widow’s Mite or Widow’s Plight?

I always thought the story of the Widow’s Mite was a story of exemplary generosity, until recently. I think a closer look at the context and the passage itself will yield a different perspective.

This famous story is sandwiched in between two interesting units of Scripture. In the context preceding the story, Jesus is warning all who are listening to him to beware of the Scribes. He states that they love to walk around in their nice robes, receive compliments in the market place, take the seats of honor at banquets, and make long impressive prayers (Lk 20:45-46). In this litany of indictments, Jesus also says that these Scribes “devour widow’s houses” (Lk 20:47). Due to their religiously cloaked pride they will receive “greater condemnation” (Lk 20:47).

The story that follows on the heels of the Widow’s Mite is equally intriguing. It is the narrative where Jesus foretells the destruction of the temple. In the story, some are admiring the beauty and handiwork of the temple. Jesus interrupts them and states that a time will come when “there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (Lk 21:5-6). Jesus then proceeds to tell the hearers of the signs that will come before this event.

So what is the significance of the context in which we find the Widow’s Mite story? What do we do with these two sandwiching narratives? How do they help us understand what is going on in our text?

I think the context helps us understand the widow’s mite as further indictment on the religious leaders of the day and their religious system. This is an example of a widow’s house being devoured. Instead of providing for and helping the widow as they ought they are draining her of all her resources.

Addison Wright states, “In both Gospels, Jesus condemns those scribes who devour the houses of widows, and then follows immediately the story of a widow whose house has beyond doubt just been devoured. What other words would be more appropriate to describe it?”[1]

Andre Resner wrote a helpful article titled, The Widows’s Mite or Widow’s Plight. He makes this assertion.  “Jesus was there to take down the Temple and its corruption, a corruption that stooped so low that it would take advantage of widows in their poverty. With the widow’s mite story falling right between the judgment of the scribes for ‘devouring widows’ houses’ and the indictment of a corrupt Temple cult, one would have to posit that the story of a widow giving everything she had to live on to such people and to such a corrupt institution might be a lament rather than a praise.”[2]

The narrative seems to hint that the widow’s gift was praiseworthy. If so, she is demonstrating sacrificial giving in spite of abusive religious leaders and amidst a broken religious system. As one man said, the widow’s gift was a “beautiful act in the desert of official devotion.” Whether this is the case or not, I am not sure. I am sure that the emphasis of the story is not on the example of the widow, but on the exploitation of the widow.

This widow was being abused in the name of religion. The scribes should have been encouraging her to keep her money so she could buy some dinner. Instead, they were glad to rob her of her last two dollars! Certainly God can and did provide for this widow, but the way he normally provides for us is through others. These religious leaders were exploiting the very individuals they were called to serve.

I fear that this text is as much a victim as its main character. I wonder how many times this text has been used to illicit the very thing it is condemning. The text is a model of what not to do to the weak! The Bible is consistent in its message. We are to care for the orphan, the widow, and the poor. It is offensive to God to exploit these individuals.

If you ever teach or preach this text and desire to be faithful in its application, then tell the poor widows of your congregation to keep their checkbooks in their purse. Tell the rest of the congregation to give sacrificially and make it clear that you will be giving all this money to the widows. Don’t miss the main point. Care for your widows, don’t use them.

[1] Addison G. Wright. The Widow’s Mites: Praise or Lament? A Matter of Context. Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 44 No. 2 (April, 1982), 256-265.

[2] Andre Resner. Widow’s Mite or Widow’s Plight: On Exegetical Abuse, Textual Harrassment and Learning Prophetic Exegesis. Review and Expositor, 107 (Fall, 2010), 545-553.

7 thoughts on “Widow’s Mite or Widow’s Plight?

  1. This is another call to humility. It’s incredible to think about what things we believe we are sure about from scripture that we may be completely mistaken about. There are plenty of instances throughout history: slavery, abuse, polygamy, being judgmental, etc. I agree with your take on this, and I have heard it preached the other way also. Could we say, though, that a person who gives with the right heart and motives, and sacrificially, is honoring God as provider and trusting Him for care, regardless of the motives of those collecting the money? I’m not, however, saying we should be blind stewards of what we have, giving to corrupt institutions. But if, as best we can tell, the church or organization is reputable, then once our money is given, we are credited with right behavior and attitude, and it’s then the responsibility of the organization to handle the gift appropriately.

  2. Wow man, hard hitting! Never even crossed my mind to see an exploitation angle here. This brings a question to my mind as a giver: How sacrificially should we give? Should we give as much as we “can” no matter what as an act of faith, or should we give according to our ability and change as circumstance arise?

  3. Rob, I do agree that God takes the heart and motivation of the giver into consideration in spite of the motives of those collecting money. Your point is well taken. I think what your saying is important.

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