Let me summarize the common message drawn from the story of the widow’s mite: “Friends, this poor widow gave everything she had to the temple treasury, so pull out your checkbooks and give a lot of money to this church.”
But let’s not go there. Let’s back up and consider the context.
First we have to think about the widow. Throughout the law and the prophets–scripture that Jesus knew intimately–the “widow and orphan” are held up as symbols of the most vulnerable people in society. The Israelites are repeatedly told to “defend the cause of the widow;” to provide for the widow; to protect the widow.
This concern for the widow extends into Jesus’ time when the male heads of household were required to pay a temple tax; thus the widows were released from that financial obligation. The religious establishment was required by their laws and scriptures to alleviate the oppression of widows.
Second, we have to think about the temple. It is, after all, the temple treasury where this poor widow puts her last two coins. The temple–in a constant state of construction–is the economic lifeblood of Jerusalem. It provides probably over half of the jobs in the city. It’s a stronger tourist magnet than Disneyland.
Third, we have to think about the totality of Jesus’ teachings. Immediately before the story of the widow, Jesus is in the temple courts and has attracted a large crowd. He says, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
Did you hear that? Scribes, many of whom are beneficiaries of the money put into the temple treasury, “devour widows’ houses.” Now read the story again:
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.’
While Jesus seems to have great love for the generous widow, I’m not sure he is entirely pleased that she gave the corrupt temple system all she had to live on. The house of God should not be a place where the poor are exploited, but where they are cared for.
We, of course, do not want to be like the scribes who walk around in long robes and devour widow’s houses. Most people argue that we should instead be like the widow who gives her last two coins to the treasury. But I think that we should be like the other scribe–the one Jesus talks with shortly before this passage; the one who says that to love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself is much more important than all of the monetary gifts we can offer.
To this scribe Jesus says, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”