“Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all 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 (ESV)
Sandwiched between two passages in which Jesus corrects false teachings about Himself and prophesies the signs of the End of the Age, we find this familiar story about a poor widow and her humble offering. It's found in two out of the four gospels of Jesus Christ—the gospel according to Mark, as well as the gospel according to Luke. It's a simple story that, on the surface, seems like it's about one very specific thing—money. Generally speaking, money, or the generosity with which one uses money, is the only context in which I've ever heard this story taught.
I believe Christians ought to be generous—very generous—more generous than all, in fact. I believe our standard of generosity often falls way short of God's standard of generosity. I believe God loves a cheerful giver. But was that all Jesus meant for us to learn from this seemingly conspicuous story? And are all those characteristics of Christian generosity actually found in this particular story?
I'm not a Bible scholar. There's a really good chance I'm wrong about all this. Perhaps, I'm over thinking it. Perhaps, this is just a story about money. Perhaps this is a lesson from First Century Financial Peace University. Perhaps this is a model of Christian generosity. But what if it's not? Is it possible that we've missed its true meaning or deeper interpretation? Is it possible that we've misunderstood Jesus...again?
Make no mistake: This is a story about incredible generosity, but whose? I believe there is a more important lesson, a more beautiful picture, hiding beneath the surface than the one that is usually given to us on Sunday morning.
Let's dig in!
The Bible Is Not About Us
As we often do with the Bible, I believe we've taken this story of the "widow's mite" and injected ourselves as the leading protagonist, or heroine in this case. But most bible scholars will tell us to look for Jesus in the Bible. What's that mean? It means that Jesus is the protagonist of the Bible. Ultimately, it's about Him, not us.
Whenever I hear this story preached from the pulpit, it's the same old song. It's not about how much you give, it's about the condition of your heart when you give. Or it's not about how much you give, but how much you keep for yourself. Some even make it about percentages. The widow gave 100 percent. Therefore, her gift was more pleasing to God.
The problem with this teaching is that Jesus doesn't describe the condition of the widow's heart. We'll explore the surrounding context later where Jesus describes the religious leaders as devouring widows' houses. Does the thing that is preyed on cheerfully give itself over to the one that preys? No, it simply doesn't have a choice. But for some reason, it's automatically assumed that because Jesus said the widow gave more than the rich people that He was pleased by it and that her motives were pure. Perhaps, He was. Perhaps, they were.
The other problem with using this as a financial lesson is that many pastors use this story as a model of Christian generosity as if this is the type of generosity that pleases God. But then these same pastors stop short of the manipulating speech that many false teachers, motivated by greed, use to get you to turn over your life savings. The widow didn't just give the best of what she had, she gave 100 percent of what she had. She had nothing left. Why don't we preach that? Should we? No, that's not the lesson Jesus wanted us to learn—I don't think.
If this is a lesson about giving, and the widow gave all she had, why aren't we supposed to give all we have, too? Why is this widow used as an example only up to a certain point? Well, I suspect it's because the one doing the preaching doesn't want to give all he has into the offering box either. I don't believe that we're supposed to give everything we have to live on because I don't believe that we're the widow in this story. It's not about us. If we're in this story at all, we're the rich people. We're the Pharisees!
Forget Waldo. Where's Jesus?
As I alluded to earlier, many good Bible teachers say that whenever we read the Bible, we should be looking for Jesus in the story. Most Christians understand that Jesus is the main character of the Bible. I heard one pastor say it like this, "Everything in the Old Testament points to the cross of Christ. Everything in the New Testament points back to the cross of Christ." One caveat to that statement is that Jesus hadn't been to the cross yet, but He does leave us clues that, ultimately, that's where He's headed.
One of my favorite things to do as a kid was to look through my 'Where's Waldo?' books. Sometimes, Waldo was easy to find. Sometimes, his hiding place was a bit more obscured. The Bible is a lot like those books. Except in this case, the goal is to find Jesus.
In the story of the widow's mite, it seems pretty straightforward as to where Jesus is. He's talking to His disciples. He's the one telling the story. If you have a red-letter Bible, you'll see that this story is filled with them. In other words, these are direct quotes of Jesus Himself as recorded by both Mark and Luke. But we're not told to find Jesus telling the story. We're told to find Jesus in the story. So where is He? Let's back up a few verses and consider the surrounding context.
And in his teaching he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” — Mark 12: 38-40 (ESV)
What does Jesus say that the scribes do? They devour widows' houses. Remember that. For now, let's keep reading.
And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. — Mark 12: 41, 42 (ESV)
In order to identify Jesus, we need to first identify the complete cast of characters. Let's list them off.
- Rich people
Out of those three, which category best describes our Lord? If you're thinking, "Well, none of them," then allow me to suggest that Jesus falls into the Widows category. You say, "But Jesus wasn't a woman." True. Very true! But these are the only characters we have. Now you say, "No, James, we have Jesus literally talking to His disciples." Right you are, but Jesus often taught in parables, too. When He told a parable, He was not only the one telling the parable, He was in the parable. This story about the widow doesn't appear to be a parable, but rather one of an actual event that took place. Still, given how Jesus told other stories, I don't think it's a stretch to look for symbolism here as well.
A Gospel Story
We can agree that Jesus was not a woman. Whew! That's refreshing. Can we also agree that Jesus was poor? Perhaps, our Lord had a fully-funded emergency fund and could afford to take a three-year missionary journey without burdening anyone. But I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that our Lord Jesus didn't have one penny to His name during His ministry. One might even argue that He was poorer than this here poor widow. The Bible says that, "though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich," 2 Corinthians 8:9. And in this same twelfth chapter of Mark, Jesus had to borrow a coin when the Pharisees asked him about paying taxes to Caesar.
Now, let's skip on down into the 13th chapter of Mark.
And as he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” — Mark 13:1, 2 (ESV)
What just happened here? Immediately after Jesus brings attention to the widow's offering in the temple, He prophesies the destruction of the temple. As we already know from reading our entire Bible and not just cherry-picking verses, when Jesus was talking about the temple being destroyed, He was referring to Himself.
Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking about the temple of his body. — John 2:19-21 (ESV)
And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. — Mark 8:31 (ESV)
This brings me to my second point for those who are keeping track. The first point is that Jesus was poor. The second point is that, just like this poor widow, Jesus' own people would devour Him. So far, we have a poor and devoured Jesus. Are you beginning to see the symbolism of the gospel? After all, this is a gospel story.
Returning to the main verse, we read, "but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on." How many of us give out of our poverty? How many of us give all we have to live on? How many of us would even be willing to? How many of us have an abundance in this land today? How many of us put our trust in our abundance rather than in God who gave the abundance? When it comes to giving out of our own abundance, we sure do like to pretend that we're broke, don't we? I've been guilty of this many times. Lord, forgive me! Oh, right. You already did!
At the same time, there are those who think that because they give a full tenth or even a twentieth—or more—that they're "generous." According to this story, these people are not generous at all. They didn't give everything they had, just a portion. Besides, it's a known fact that most Christians give far less than a tenth of their income to tax-deductible organizations. I don't think there is a certain percentage one must give. I don't see that in Scripture, but let's not get started on tithing right now. That's an entirely different article.
What these rich people were doing was no different than us trying to receive justification by works. We can give on our way to heaven, but we can't give our way into heaven. These rich people thought they were so generous, so pious, so righteous, but Jesus said they will receive the greater condemnation.
How many of us take pride in how much we give or how consistently we give? We're so obedient, aren't we? Just look at us. How many of us like to make a spectacle, at least in our own minds, of our giving? Look how much we gave to the church or to that ministry, and we make a big deal about it, if not consciously, then subconsciously. Meanwhile, all of heaven just threw up in their mouths.
We can give on our way to heaven, but we can't give our way into heaven.
When Jesus said that the widow gave more because she gave all she had, I believe Jesus may have been alluding to the fact that He was going to pay it all for us. He wasn't going to hold back anything. Out of His poverty, He was going to give all He had, including His very own life. And that He did. He gave more than any of us ever could. And that's the point, I believe, of the story of the widow's mite.
What incredible generosity that "while we were still sinners, Christ died for us," (Romans 5:8). But praise God that the story didn't end there. Jesus Christ was devoured. The temple was destroyed, but just like He said would happen, three days later, God raised Christ to life. Death had to give Him back up; it forever lost its sting. Jesus is alive today! What a remarkable story this is.
Romans 12:13 reminds us that generosity is the mark of a true Christian. We are called to contribute from our resources to the needs of the saints, whether that be in the form of money, time, possessions, or something else. We are to do this cheerfully and humbly, remembering that it was God who gave to us in the first place. God gives to us, so that He can give through us because apart from Him, we can do nothing (John 15:5).
The story of the widow giving all she had to live on exemplifies Christ's sacrifice for us on the cross. He who was rich made Himself poor, so that He could give His life, all that He had, to bring salvation to the world and glorify our Father in Heaven.