If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Does Mite Make Right? a different interpretation of the story of the widow's mites

As he taught he said, "Beware of the scribes ... they devour widows houses ... " He 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 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." Mark 12: 38,40,41-44

Religious institutions have a potential for great good and great evil. When their goal becomes the glory of the institution itself, the institution can become corrupted and its religious leaders lose sight of their role of helping the poor and, instead, end up oppressing them. In a Time magazine article on "Gospel TV: Religion, Politics, and Money" the writers quote a Televangelist, who headed a religious broadcasting network with a budget of $35 million. This preacher-of-prosperity told his viewers that a widow had donated her life savings of $7000 and commented, "Do you realize what an awesome responsibility it is for me to stand here and encourage people to literally give all they have to God. I'm either the biggest fool and idiot and con man in the world or else I'm plugged in to heaven." (1) Now, a lot of us may have already figured out what he is. Who could spend this poor widow's $7000 on air time as quick as a child gets rid of a dime on candy? I’ll bet you may be wondering if this guy's plugged in at all! But, hold your opinion for just a minute.

Would you praise this poor widow for giving all that she had to an already wealthy religious institution? Yes? No? Well, ask yourself this question: Would you praise the poor widow in Mark's gospel for putting all that she had into the treasury of the already wealthy institution of the temple? It may be that we need to reexamine our traditional interpretation of Mark's story about the widow's mites and see if there might be a different lesson that Jesus' wants to teach his followers.

Are we to praise the poor for giving away all that they have to religious leaders and wealthy institutions? How we answer that question for ourselves may depend on how we interpret the story of the poor widow. The narrative tells how one day Jesus was sitting “over against” the temple treasury. Notice the intentional spatial language. In the Court of Women there were 13 trumpet-shaped receptacles where money could be deposited for the work of the temple. Jesus sat at the foot of one of the temple pillars near the treasury and watched the crowd.

The priests, part of Jerusalem's upper class, could be singled out from the common crowd in the temple by their long, flowing robes. They liked being noticed for their flashy clerical garb, getting ministerial discounts, and sitting next to the mayor or bishop at religious and civic functions. When they entered the court, commoners made way for them and evacuated the best places in the house. Cushions were brought and seats cleaned for the temple priests to sit and pray. To one side of the court the scribes, also a part of the upper class, sat and listened, to legal difficulties, often of poor widows and disinherited orphans, for a goodly fee, of course. The rich, robed in finery, processed by the treasury in all their pomp and circumcision and dropped in handfuls of coins, which loudly jingled as they fell into the trumpet-shaped receptacles. These grandiose offerings of the rich would go to feed the already bloated institution of the temple. And it didn't even make a dent in their finances.

Then, in contrast to the wealthy and powerful, who were throwing in handfuls of money with plenty left over, there came by the treasury a poor widow. Widows were among the poorest strata of Palestinian society. Life was difficult for the widow, living in a patriarchal society without a male to financially provide for them. Israel's covenant had its commandments to protect the rights of widows. But these often went unheeded.

We need not imagine the widow as elderly, since only about 20% of the population survived beyond their fortieth birthday, which would be the mortality rate of modern Bangladesh. It is interesting to note that the Hebrew word for "widow" was very close to the word for "be mute." Widows were the powerless and voiceless in a society which listened to the sound of money talking. Is there nothing new under the sun?

This poor widow had in her feeble hand two mites; literally, two quadrans, the smallest Roman coin of the time. Each coin amounted to about 1/8th of a penny. Together, her two coins amounted to 1/8th of what rabbi's taught should be given to a travelling beggar from the "Pauper's dish." It appeared that her two coins were her "life savings", all that she had.

Jesus called together his disciples to watch what was about to happen. The widow did not even keep one of the coins for herself She dropped both of them into the coffers. It was a flash in the pan, but it was everything that she had. And any small contribution that those two small coins made would be for the upkeep of the magnificent temple and the support of its upper-class attendants. Jesus turned to his disciples and said, "Truly, I tell you. This widow gave more than all the others. For they all gave out of their abundance, but she, out of her lack, gave all that she had, all her living." The question is: Was Jesus praising the woman, as we have traditionally interpreted the text, or was he lamenting the sorry state of affairs inflicted on the poor by the institutional system of the temple?

Does this story teach us to praise the poor when they give away everything they have to religious leaders and their wealthy institutions? Should we praise the sacrificial contributions of those poor who helped to pay for a certain preacher's $1million dollar home, another's $100 million dollar a year ministry, and another's $172 million theme park and rare 1939 Rolls-Royce, just to name a few of the extravagances of some religious leaders and their institutions? Some religious leaders even encourage their followers to use their savings and to borrow in order to give to their ministry. Are these practices to be commended, particularly when their TV appeals are often heard by low-income families, widows, or the elderly on fixed incomes?

Now, I don't want to just beat up on TV preachers, but they do seem make rather easy targets! At times the sneaky tactics of some Televangelists are directly aimed at getting the Christian dollars of those lonely widows, who sit at home with no other companion than the TV. There's one tactic that can yank on a thousand purse strings. All the preacher has to do is say something like, "The Lord is speaking to me. Thank you, Jeeeeezus! He's telling me that there's an elderly woman out there in Televisionland, who has some money stashed away in her house. She's been saving it for herself But the Lord told me to tell you, sister, not to hoard His money. Glory be to God! The Lord is telling me, yes, the word is clear, to take that step of faith and send it all in, so it can be used to do Gaaaawd's work. Amen? Amen!" Now, "figgerin'" that you got a TV audience of about 15 million watching, how many are old ladies with money stashed away for themselves somewhere in their house? The Lord doth move in mysterious ways His wonders to perform! Now, should we praise those widows, who do send in the little money they have to live on?

Social workers have complained that the elderly poor often give to religious broadcasters more than they can afford. One such incident occurred in Altoona, Pa., where a 67-year-old widow was threatened with a heat shut-off when she couldn't pay her gas bill. She had sent a large portion of her $331 monthly social-security check to a well known TV preacher who, to say the least, was not pinching pennies. Should we praise that Altoona widow for her sacrificial giving, particularly when we know that it is just going to add to the accumulated wealth of a religious institution and its leaders?

We need to beware of justifying institutional oppression of the poor, even if the institutions are religious. This is the danger we encounter with the traditional interpretation of Jesus' words about the widow's offering as being words of praise. Jesus' words have been interpreted as a commendation in a variety of ways as teaching First, the story is supposed to teach us that the true measure of gifts is not how much is given but how much remains behind. Second, the story teaches us that it is not the amount which one gives that matters but the spirit in which the gift is given, that is, as in self-offering, total commitment, loyalty to God's call, generosity, humility, detachment from possessions, or in trust that God will provide one's needs. Third, the story teaches us that the true gift is to give everything we have. Fourth, it teaches us that alms and other gifts should correspond with one's' means. Or fifth, the story of the poor widow teaches us that almsgiving is a duty. It would be interesting to examine each one of these interpretations of the story, but as we interpret the text within its context we will find that each of these interpretations is not without its problems.

Would Jesus commend the action of the widow in light of his previous condemnation of the Corban? This was a practice, among some in Jesus' day, of withdrawing financial support from their parents by declaring it "Corban", that is, "given to God." Jesus is remembered for having said that human needs take precedence over religious ritual, obligation, and observance when the two come in conflict. Would Jesus condemn the Corban, that could impoverish elderly parents out of a pretense of religious obligation, and then turn around and commend the widow for giving away all her money, leaving her totally destitute, in order to support the corrupted temple institution?

The story of the Widow's mites is preceded by a warning against and condemnation of the scribes, the elite and wealthy religious leaders who loved to "strut their stuff" in the temple and who under the pretense of long prayers "ate up widow's houses." In other words, their so-called trusted position as religious leaders in "the house of prayer," had allowed them to benefit off poor widows, like the one in our story, to the point that they "ate them out of house and home" with their profiteering. They did this by either a practice of pilfering off widows' estates, while holding their property in trust or by the simple fact that they were the one's in charge of the temple, whose costs were devouring the goods of widow's.

We must interpret the story of the widow in light of its context of the preceding passage that condemns the scribes who "eat up widow's houses," the story's anti-temple context, which includes the story of the cursing of the fig tree (a symbol of the temple), the parable of wicked tenants (which represent wicked religious leaders ), Jesus' expulsion of the money-changers from the temple (a prophetic act symbolizing the condemnation of the economic exploitation of the temple institution), his condemnation of the temple as becoming a "den of thieves," as well as the story that follows today's text about how the disciples marvel at the wondrous temple, while Jesus predicts that one stone shall not be left standing on top of another. Within this anti-temple context, the interpretation of the story as Jesus praising the widow for offering her last red cent to the temple becomes questionable.

Could it be that Jesus is rather lamenting the sad situation of the widow, exploited by the corrupted temple institution? Could it be that he is saying something to his disciples like, "Look at that poor widow. The rich can just skim off the top and support the temple. No loss. But she has given to the temple everything she had to live on. Her house has been completely eaten up."

If we take the traditional interpretation of this story as Jesus' praise of the widow's offering, we may need to apologize for our negative reactions to all the widows of our day who give everything they have to wealthy religious institutions, and rather praise them. Even if we see this story as one of praising the widow's offering, we must at least remember its context and beware of using it to justify institutional oppression of the poor. Institutional oppression of the poor is something we must beware of even in our day. Institutions, including religious ones, can become sinful and exploit those in need. Sin is not only personal. It is social and effects institutions, just as it had effected the institution of the temple in Jesus' day. Sin can stain the social fabric of any society.

When we buy our coffee from "Juan Valdez", who is in reality a poor South American living in a shack with a sick wife and six underfed children and is paid pennies to harvest coffee beans by a U.S. multinational corporation, instead of producing edible food for his own country, but is exploited for an enormous profit, which is passed on to us, then... we are involved in the social sin of economic institutions. Social sin happens when we pass budgets that support the military-industrial complex by allocating billions to building stealth bombers and advanced nuclear weapon technology, while we cut Social Security for widows and the elderly, and reduce medicaid and medicare benefits for the poor, the fatherless, and those on fixed incomes.

The institutional sins that plagued the poor widow with only two mites to her name, still plague the church today. Like Jesus and the disciples, who watched it happening in the temple, we can see it happening in the church. And it is a cause to lament the sorry state of religious institutions. We must lament what happened in countries in South America in the 80’s, and even today, where the official church supported the wealthy and turned a blind eye toward their US backed military, which supported the oligarchy of elite landowners, who exploited the poor campesinos. And when the poor sought land reform or tried to improve their situation, they were terrorized and murdered by the military's death squads. EI Salvador has been a country full of poor widows. Yet, the majority of US churches remained silent or oblivious to this exploitation of the poor that was in our own back door.

We may look and lament when we see, in our own wealthy country, the treasuries of large churches spent on expensive church buildings, padded pews, stained glass windows, and extravagant musical productions, but find it hard to cough up a few dollars to help house the homeless or pay the light bill of a single mother. But even small churches need to take a hard look and lament how their budgets and personal energies are spent on their own agenda to the point that the needs of others are forgotten.

The unjustifiable exploitation of others by religious leaders, like the scribes and priests of Jesus' day,still happens and is to be lamented. I once watched on the news two rather well-fed pastors being arrested and accused of siphoning off money from a widow's estate that they held in trust for her. When I heard it, I immediately thought of Mark’s story of the poor widow, which accuses the scribes of "eating up widow's houses." Clergy, such as myself, must always beware of the danger of using others for personal gain, in whatever form it may take.

If we are not aware and responsive to this word of Christ from the widow's story, we may become blind to how economic, political, social, and even church institutions, can exploit those already in need, and then justify it in the name of supporting religion.

As Christians, who are a part of a religious institution, the church, we are to creatively work toward caring for those in need. Did you know that the office of deacon was created by the early church as a response to the needs of widows? (Acts 6) The church even created an' official ministry of widows;elderly women who were to care for the needs of others (I Timothy 5). What dignity it must have given to those widows, who in that society were mute and forgotten."

What can the church of today do to help, instead of exploit the needs of widows and the poor? Mennonite Central Committee relief sales are a contemporary creative means of supporting a worldwide effort to not just give charity, but dignity through teaching skills and providing markets that enhance the economic development of the poor, a great majority of which are women and widows. Mennonite Central Committee contributes, in a significant way, in helping those poor widows with their work among poor indigenous peoples. Through voluntary service young people, and retired alike, give of themselves to helping the poor widow and others with needs like her.

If you go to the church down on the corner of our street on a weekday you can sit and watch, not the poor widow giving away her last cent, but rather picking up bags of groceries from the food pantry, which we have the opportunities to contribute to. And we have heard personal reports of needy people, like the poor widow, living right next door who could be helped through our compassion. Could it be that our neighbor might just be that widow that gave away her last two cents? Maybe we could simply visit the widow next door. The apostle James said that one of the things that makes religion authentic is to visit the widow.

The story of the widow's mites, as traditionally interpreted, may truly inspire us to give. Just as long as the inspiration is not that poor widows impoverish themselves by giving everything to religious institutions, or that wealthy, North American Christians just need to skim a bit more off the top in their giving. However we interpret the story of the widow, it can, and probably should, inspire our giving.

But there is something even more profound that can happen with this story, more than just widow's mite inspiring us to greater giving. It happens when the might of Christ's word, which wants to speak from this story, is unleashed on our world. This word can shake the temple to its very foundation and spill the contents of its treasury. This word can alter the face of economic reality to look more like the face of Christ. This word can crack open the church's heart of compassion and justice.


(1) RichardN. Ostling, "Gospel TV: Religion, Politics, and Money," Time, February 17,1986,62-69.


  1. Hey Leo...could I republish this on JesusManifesto.com (perhaps as a two parter)?

  2. Could I republish this (perhaps as a two parter) for JesusManifesto.com?