Widow Problem

The story of the Widow’s Offering in Mark 12:41-44 troubles me. Or more exactly how we interpret it.

(Jesus) sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

I grew up hearing the widow described as a model of Christian giving, a heroine of giving sacrificially. The moral is that we are to give more financially to the church. Yet, I never heard anyone teach or preach that I should give away everything like she had.

However, I rarely read the story in its context. Jesus observed the widow during his final week in Jerusalem. He had been in direct confrontation with the temple leadership and its institution throughout chapter twelve. Immediately preceding the story of the widow’s offering, Jesus warned against the religious officials, “Beware, of the scribes, who . . . have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at the banquets! They devour widow’s houses” (Mark 12:40).

Could it be that Jesus’ observation of the widow is a reinforcement of that warning? Could it be that instead of being observed as a heroine of giving, she is rather a living example of how the religious institution has devoured all her property? After all, Jesus observed what she has done, but he does not praise it.

Furthermore, the story is immediately followed by Jesus prediction that the temple will soon be destroyed. “Do you see these great buildings: Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (Mark 13:2). Would an offering to the temple treasury be such a laudable act if the temple itself will soon be destroyed?

I realize that the widow’s action may be a call to radical discipleship. One of my seminary professors, the late Don Juel, wrote,

She was able to part with her possessions—unlike the young man who came to Jesus and ‘goes away sorrowing’ because he cannot sell what he has. We can recall the promise of Jesus earlier: those who lose their lives will save them. The woman gives ‘her whole life,’ as Jesus will give himself as a ‘ransom for many.’ Donald H. Juel, Augsburg Commentary on Mark, 1990, p. 173

Can the widow be a model and a victim at the same time?

Lord Jesus, show me how to give myself completely to you.

5 thoughts on “Widow Problem

  1. opreach

    Thank you for this. So often we have become accustomed to Jesus’ parables that we can’t hear them with the shock-value the first hearers had. The stories were meant to shake us up. While the Lord hears the cry of the poor, we (in the churches) are often paying attention to other non-essentials. Peace and all good, Pat

    1. Pastor John Keller Post author

      I am still grappling with this texts as I prepare to preach it tomorrow. One new insight is that the temple treasury were metal boxes and large gifts of coins would make a lot of noise, but the widow’s two small coins would have been so quiet in comparison. Yet Jesus noticed her gift. I see a real connection to our prayers; Jesus hears them no matter how softly we say them. Joy to you.

      1. opreach

        That is another good insight, as I saw in your post today. It a very pastoral. The former insight is more challenging and lead to a message on social justice. The question is probably, what does your congregation need to hear at this moment. It may be that they are heard by God. Or it may be a Lenten challenge. What are you hearing?

        Thank you for sharing your insights and reflections online.


  2. Mat

    I’ve heard that theory before, but don’t think it’s correct. I think she functions in the story as a heroine for one very important reason: she provides a stark contrast against the powerful, wealthy, religious elites who pat themselves on the back for giving large sums of money. In the story, Jesus points to her and says to them, “So, what? Your big gifts aren’t that special. You give out of your abundance and for public recognition, but she gives out of her poverty. Her gift is not given to earn adulation or respect; her gift is given out of faith and humility. Her gift is greater than yours!” While it is true that he earlier excoriates their willingness to “devour the widows offering,” that is probably more a commendation of their failure to properly care for the poor, even as they accept money from the poor. Still, however, I think the traditional interpretation is a good one and an important one because it highlights Jesus’ respect for women, who carried little religious standing in that day. Nevertheless, we also need to remember that if we are to accept the offerings of the poor, we are to also doubly accept our responsibility to care for the poor in much greater amounts, otherwise we too may be guilty of devouring the widows offering.

    Just a few thoughts.

  3. Pingback: Wrong Interpretation | Pastor John Keller

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