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 fraction of a penny. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, 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
This is another of the gospel stories that I’m convinced has been consistently misinterpreted. Every sermon I’ve ever heard on this pasage — and some I’ve preached myself — have read this as a commendation of the widow’s faith, giving all she had to the work of God. They go on to exhort congregations to think about how sacrificially they’re prepared to give.
The only way we could reach such an interpretation of this story is by reading it in isolation, separated from what went before and comes after, so let’s remind ourselves. Jesus has just warned against the teachers of the Law who “devour widows’ houses”, only to see a widow putting the last of her money into the temple treasury. “See,” says Jesus. “Just as I said.”
There disciples aren’t convinced, being too impressed by the magnificence of the buildings — prompting Jesus to warn of the temple’s imminent destruction.
Read in context, this story is a link in the chain of Jesus’ announcement of the end of the temple and the repressive authority it represents.
Far from being a commendation of the widow’s faith, this is a condemnation of those who cause a poor women to destitute herself for the sake of religious observance.
My friend Kim Fabricius adds: Here is another detail to note. The temple was not only a place of worship but also a bank. And worshippers didn’t tuck their offerings in little envelopes and then put them discreetly in a basket, they audibly declared the amount to a priest and then threw the money into a huge trumpet-shaped chest, in this widow’s case two lepta, the smallest coins in circulation. In other words, as well as the emphasis on opulence and hardship, there is the issue of a very public humiliation (and one can imagine the treasurer-priest sniggering at her paltry donation).