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.