Wrestling with The Widow’s Mite

Widow's Mite (Image)

Mark 12:41-44 (New King James Version)

The Widow’s Two Mites

Now Jesus sat opposite the treasury and saw how the people put money into the treasury. And many who were rich put in much.  Then one poor widow came and threw in two mites, which make a quadrans.  So He called His disciples to Himself and said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all those who have given to the treasury; for they all put in out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all that she had, her whole livelihood.”

I think of just giving as a good thing.  Practically every religion and moral code agree on helping the needy.  But when I recollect Jesus’ teaching on The Widow’s Mite, I’m left with more questions than answers.

Stung by accusations that nonprofits are wasteful, nowadays the philanthropy world is very focused on efficiency, scalability, sustainability, and many other business buzzwords.  And of course, bigger is better.  The UN Millennium Project estimates that we can eliminate poverty if developed countries give 0.7% of their GNP.  If you were to ask “What’s the biggest thing to happen in the philanthropy field in the past 20 years?” most experts would note the creation of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, now the world’s largest at $33B.  More recently Bill and his friend Warren Buffett have started a campaign to ask the rest of the world’s billionaires to donate at least 50% of their wealth to charity.  But in The Widow’s Mite, Jesus seems unconcerned about the large amounts given by the rich.  It’s hard for me to reconcile my goals of promoting and exercising philanthropy in the light of Jesus’ apparent indifference to absolute amounts.

The only other time Jesus remarks on public giving is in Matthew 6:1-5: Don’t make a show of giving in public.  Again, this stresses me out a bit, as I feel caught between wanting to keep my giving private vs. wanting to spread the message and inspire others.  And what about the directive to let your light shine before men?  It also conflicts with the philanthropy world, where more publicity means more involvement and more donations, bringing us closer to our fiscal goals.

The only interpretation which doesn’t cause me cognitive dissonance is the spiritual one: Giving is measured by its cost.  And this makes me uncomfortable in a different way, because I give from abundance.  This is not a matter of amounts.  It’s a matter of how much you are willing to deny yourself for the purpose of identifying with the poor, to take part — a small part — of their suffering, and to share their spirit.  I’m afraid to write more, since it sounds like asceticism, which is unfamiliar to me.  But I’m sure some positive examples exist, where people gave in a costly manner with joy.  I’ve heard of a recent biography that tells of a man who made a fortune and quietly gave it away — has anyone read this book?


18 thoughts on “Wrestling with The Widow’s Mite

  1. hey ed, this is joung-mo. I think about how a (relatively) wealthy christian ought to live a lot too. But first, direct responses to some of what you said:

    Impact: I really don’t think Jesus was being indifferent to absolute amounts per se. In a sense, of course he is indifferent because he owns everything, but I don’t think that’s why he said what he did in this story. All he does is *compare* what the widow gave vs. what the other people gave, and said that the widow gave more. he doesn’t say that the other people were wrong to give what they did, or that it wasn’t enough, or even that the widow wasn’t being irresponsible for giving too much! Just that she gave more, and I think that lesson is clear and uncontroversial. If anything, it seems to imply that if you have more, you should give that much more.

    Seen: the verse says don’t make a “show” of giving in public, not simply not to give in public. I don’t think transparency itself is bad at all – I think the admonition is against the heart with which you give, and very much related to the story of Ananias and Sapphira – they could have kept as much as they wanted and given whatever they felt like in public, and it would have been fine. Their sin was to lie to make themselves seem more important before men. We need to give for the right reasons, not to show off, and as long as we aren’t doing that then making what we do known is not a bad thing. I could see someone having to force themself to keep it secret, however, if they know they struggle with this sin, and it’s the only way to keep themself accountable – but I don’t think secret giving is a rule. I actually think sharing openly how we spend our money could do a lot of good in our culture.

    Spirit: this is something I’ve struggled with for quite a long time, and I thin I’m in the same boat as you here. Not because I’m particularly wealthy so much as I wonder what the ideal is. Is it totally out of the question for a christian to buy a yacht? How about if it’s the only way to witness to the rich people inside the yacht club? There are a lot of absolutely beautiful treasures and artworks which were exceedingly expensive and wasteful, in a sense, to make – was that wrong or an example of God’s extravagant grace and blessing to us? How about expensive food? is it morally wrong to eat it when people are starving, or is it a good and proper, infrequent indulgence that God intended for us to enjoy? I have rejected the asceticism route as well, that doesn’t ring true with what I understand of God’s heart for us, and how full he wants our lives to be. Personally, I try to judge each expenditure against the kingdom – is this an investment there or not? happiness and joy are good things, and so are things that bring those about, but like any good thing they can become idols if raised too highly. Anyway, I haven’t completely figured this one out either. Just have to stay humble. Thanks for blogging!

  2. Thanks for this. I think what the Bible has to say on the issues of “Impact”, “Being Seen”, and Spirit” has both spiritual and practical wisdom.

    In terms of the impact perspective, I interpret this story to be partially about the relatively larger impact that can be made if all people with *at least* as limited means as the widow became convinced of their ability to give. In other words, the total impact of poorer individuals and households using a portion of their money towards giving could likely be greater than the overall impact of a few rich individuals. Charitable giving statistics support this–Giving USA, a non-profit foundation that studies philanthropy in the United States, in its 2009 report found 33% of estimated total giving, $103.95 billion, went to “houses of worship and denominational organizations”, which is larger than the Gates Foundation. Further, a majority of the giving is done by lower-income households. (I also think the data shows that lower-income households are more likely to attend a house of worship regularly.) Further, the lion’s share of religious giving is through habitual regular tithing rather than one-time gifts. (Btw, I have some strong disagreements with the practice of unconditional tithing to churches because of the various perverse incentives given to church administrators but that’s another discussion altogether.)

    In terms of the “Being Seen” perspective, i.e. the instruction to not let others see your giving, I think this is primarily a warning against spiritual pride in your charitable giving… which is a pretty dangerous position to be in if you believe in justification and sanctification through grace, not works. So yes, I definitely believe that there is a balance to work out in which you advertise your giving activity to encourage others to give, while at the same time not advertising your giving to keep you humble. Perhaps one can advertise that you gave to a particular cause or organization without advertising the amount you give.

    In terms of the “Spirit” topic, i.e. the costly giving vs. the abundant giving, I wholeheartedly agree that costly giving is extremely important for the spiritual life… but I also think it makes sense from a pragmatic perspective because experiencing for yourself the myriad disadvantanges, costs, barriers, etc. the poor face improves the effectiveness of giving. I think being more in contact with the poor can give one valuable insights like realizing that significant reason lower-skill data entry works in India workers have irregular working hours that prevent them from full-time work or more pay is because their public transportation is so poor and erratic. Or that black boys in the urban ghetto are more likely to drop out of school because of a combination of the temptation of illegal money on the street and the lack of encouragement, role-modeling, discipline, etc. in their lives due to overstrained single mothers and absent fathers. Or realizing that most of the trillions in aid given to Africa in the past 50 years has never not benefited the poor because the money is given through the same institutional infrastructure that has caused the structural poverty to begin with. (I guess it’s obvious that I feel a lot of frustration about the variety of ill-informed poverty-fighting initiatives that religious and charitable giving funds…)

  3. Hmmm.

    I must say I kinda disagree with the basic interpretations of this passage.

    Imho, this is one of the most out-of context passages ever quoted in scripture. If you read just 3 verses prior (Mk 12:38-40) and 2 after (Mk 13:1-2) the classic passage, it becomes clear to me that Jesus points out the widow and the practice of public almsgiving for two purposes:

    1) The scribes “devour widows’ houses”. How are they doing that? Although it’s certainly unclear, I think Jesus pointing out the *result* of her “generosity/faithfulness” speaks loudly. He is not praising the widow’s action. He is condemning the unjust system that compels a widow, who under Mosaic law should be the very recipient of the tithe (Deut 26:12), to give “all that she had” thus rendering her destitute.

    2) The temple had become something other than its original purpose (remember Jesus angrily clearing the temple). People’s attention was being drawn to the magnificence of the Temple, but actually it was being used to pervert God’s law. Under the circumstances, God saw fit to have it (and the unjust system it was perpetuating) completely destroyed (“not one stone shall be left upon another”).

  4. I think one misses the main thrust of the story if one sees it mainly as criticizing the scribes and hypocrites. In the plain sense of the text, Jesus commends the widow’s action. He could have easily said something about the injustice of the temple here, but he did not.

    I do agree that the fact that Mark chooses to places this pericope within this specific context is significant to our understanding of Mark’s intent–so I accept the “criticizing hypocrites” lesson as a secondary message. But we should not prioritize that above Jesus’s plainly stated message.

    In short, I agree with your analysis, Ed.

    I’ll add one point. Jesus’s reaction to the widow’s mite serves to clarify the sort of “good deeds” the Christian should expect will best generate glory to *God* (rather than man) that Jesus discusses in Mt 5:16.

    The flashy/showy things we’re able do out of our abundance of wealth (or talent) aren’t all that suitable for bringing glory to God. Such gestures will mainly draw attention to our own greatness, our own accomplishments. (e.g., wow, that guy had $33 billion to give!)

    Instead, the deed that Jesus notes was almost unnoticable, and came out of the widow’s weakness (when it comes to charitable giving, the financially poor can do the least). But her action is nearly incomprehensible to us, and it inspires exactly the sort of discomfort which you express in your blog post. That’s the sort of thing that brings glory to God.

  5. Ang, I respectfully disagree. I can’t believe Jesus would see a widow, constrained by unjust social pressure, becoming utterly penniless, as a “secondary issue” to Jesus, or even to Mark. This is injustice at its purest. The tithe was designed to prevent widows from becoming destitute, and yet this particular temple practice devoured her house.

    I happen to work daily with widows who have very little. I certainly see great faith in them, and they are amazingly generous with the little they have, which certainly is as inspiring as it is humbling. But to give “all they have to live on” is tantamount to suicide, and certainly doesn’t bring glory to God.

    So the question becomes, what drives this widow to do so? What bad theology or broken system can not only keep a widow in utter poverty but compel her to act so prodigally? I don’t deny that she may have great faith that God can take care of her, as the scriptures promise. Or that her heart is in the right place. But I doubt this is her core motivation. I’ve been around similar dysfunctional cross-class dynamics enough to believe that it is unrighteous religious pressure and shame.

    Again, I simply don’t think Jesus would praise an act that leaves a widow destitute. We like to think her action is so commendable because we often have fairy-tale perspectives on the poor. I just don’t think it’s an accurate understanding of the dynamics at play.

  6. Nic,

    I guess the point about the impracticality of the widow’s action doesn’t really move me. Jesus often just isn’t practical! There is, for instance, what he says in the Sermon on the Mount about not worrying about tomorrow (Mt 6:25-34, Luke 12:22–34). And Jesus is also known to tell others to give everything they have away (Mark 10:21). I agree this isn’t practical, but Jesus doesn’t seem in principle opposed to doing so. I assume the Widow’s action would be just as commendable if she were rich, and threw all she had into the pot.

    So in my view, the praiseworthiness of the widow’s action is an issue that is separate from the justice of the temple system. The temple system may in fact be unjust, and Jesus may indeed be criticizing it. But he can critique the system while simultaneously praising the extravagant, even reckless, action of the widow.

  7. Ang, I see your point & it’s a strong one.

    I still completely disagree, especially because it would certainly NOT be equally commendable if a rich person had put in everything they had. If they did (which would be most highly commendable) their action would be completely different because of their starting and ending points. Even if they were to empty their bank accounts, and IRAs, liquidate all assets, sell all possessions (which is basically unheard of), they would still have their status, their class, their privilege, their education, their opportunities, their relationships, their “friends in high places”, their support systems, etc. People in extreme poverty are prisoners and slaves to their condition. They depend on God, atrociously hard work, and charity for mere survival. So putting in all you have (even without considering the dynamics that would compel a destitute widow to do so) is simply not the same in both cases.

    This is akin to saying it would be fair for the rich to be in the same tax bracket as the poor. This would be fundamentally unjust.

    We seem to be stubbornly entrenched in our positions, and I admire your tenacity and practical perspective. I guess I just feel, ironically, overwhelmingly moved by the widow’s condition.

  8. Nic,

    You’re absolutely right: for rich & talented folks to give up as much as the widow, they must not only give away all their possessions, but they must also transfer themselves into a context where none of their connections, relationships, and abilities give them any advantage whatsoever.

    I missed this point, probably because I don’t, as you do, work every day with poor people.

    But even this level of sacrifice is not impossible for the rich. I have in mind for example, a case where someone with prodigious intellectual abilities chooses to leave a prestigious academic position to work a place where his abilities and commendations are irrelevant: serving mentally handicapped people: Henri Nouwen.

    Nouwen’s emptying of himself may not have been as *complete* as the widow’s. But it’s an approximation. And it shows, I think, that it’s at least *possible* for a rich person to make the same sort of unthinkably impractical sacrifice as the widow.

    And surely, God has a right to call any of us, rich and talented included, to make such a sacrifice, right? Isn’t that part of the sentiment behind Paul’s classifying as “dung” all of his reasons for confidence in the flesh (Philippians 3:8)?

    So yes, I’m pretty entrenched in my view that pragmatics don’t count for all that much in Jesus’s view. He is, after all, someone who said, “Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.” This seems to me to be the ultimate repudiation of practical thinking.

  9. Ang,

    I certainly agree that a high level of sacrifice for the rich is possible (even recommended).

    I also agree God naturally has the right to call any of us to make such a sacrifice, even the destitute. But I don’t think it’s an issue of His right. Does it sound like God to ask a destitute widow to be utterly penniless?

  10. Nic,

    I believe that God, being no respecter of persons, calls all, rich or poor, to the same level of radical, impractical sacrifice.

    So if the rich are commendable for making a certain sort of radical sacrifice, the poor too would be commendable for making a comparable sacrifice.

  11. Ang,

    Yes, I agree that we’re all called to the same level of sacrifice, and that *comparable* sacrifices would be equally commendable.

    But again, the rich giving everything away is not comparable to the poor giving everything away.

    In my work, we insist that the poor contribute in some way in the work that we do among them. We don’t believe in “handouts”, perpetuating dependency, or filling a financial need just because it costs us nothing but is significant for them (except in extreme cases, like providing $10 worth of life-saving medicine). We believe that everyone, even those in extreme poverty, are called to be generous and open-handed, and can receive the blessings and joy that come from being hospitable and generous.

    I just believe that God looks at individual situations as such, and demands actions accordingly.

    BTW, could you fill out what you mean by “God, being no respecter of persons”? Thanks.

  12. Nic,

    I believe it is possible for the rich to make a comparable sacrifice to the sacrifice of the poor widow who gave everything away. As you pointed out earlier, that requires the rich to do more than give away all his possessions. I suggest the rich will also have to translate themselves into a different social context. That was why I brought up Nouwen. Do you disagree with this point?

    I mean by God being “no respecter of persons” what Paul means in Romans 2:11, or Peter in Acts 10:34. It’s often translated as God being impartial.

    I wonder, by the way, how you interpret 1 Kings 17:7-16. Here we have a widow who even has a dependent, who has almost no food left. And the messenger of God tells her to *first* give to him all she’s got left, with nothing more than a promise that God will provide for her future.

    It sounds to me that God’s here asking a destitute widow to render herself absolutely helpless, relying only on faith in God’s provision.

  13. Ang,

    No, I don’t disagree with your point. However, I think there’s a fundamental difference between a wealthy person having the luxury to be able to make that choice and an extremely poor person who is constrained to do so by an unjust system (my original point).

    Great and challenging point about the widow at Zarephath. You’re absolutely right, God asked her to give her last crumbs, at the brink of death, to His representative. My only response is that God chose to do so for His own reasons (to demonstrate His love for the Gentiles [Luke 4:26]?) But to quote you, as I believe I have made my position sufficiently clear about the fundamental difference between the extremely poor giving all they have and others doing so, this reference doesn’t really move me.

    I just think the body of Scripture is fairly clear on the fact that the poor need to be cared for in particular. To go back to my original comment, the tithe was designed, in part, to provide for widows. Yet in the original passage (way) above, the scribes have set up a system that not only doesn’t provide for them but devours their houses. This injustice is so flagrant that Jesus points it out. I am willing to concede that He is also praising her sacrifice. But what I hear in His tone, so to speak, is not admiration but anger (emphasized by Him adding “her whole livelihood”).

  14. Nic,

    Perhaps we’ve reached a convergence of perspective, since I’m willing to accept your point that Jesus is criticizing the unjust temple system, and it seems you’re willing to accept that Jesus is also praising the widow’s sacrifice.

    I’d like to examine the “fundamental difference” you claim can exist between comparable sacrifices of the poor and the rich. I’m not sure I understand what you have in mind here.

    You mention choice here, so I’m guessing that what’s troubling you about the widow’s sacrifice is that you sense an element of coercion: the widow seems not to have a full choice about the matter. (Is this right?) But the paradigm of sacrifice, where a rich person gives away everything, becoming poor, is of course Jesus himself (2 Corinthians 8:9, Philippians 2:5-11). Did Jesus have the luxury to make a choice about whether to do what he did? I’m not sure. Maybe he did. But I think it’s best to see him as constrained by what the Father wants (John 6:38).

    I tend to think that, if someone is being called by God to make a radical sacrifice, s/he will have precisely the same level of choice about the matter, whether s/he happens to be rich or poor.

  15. Thanks everyone for your great comments and discussion. My takeaway and summary response is:

    1) The plain reading of the text is what had inspired my post, that Jesus commended the widow’s spirit of radical giving. I still stand by that.

    2) The context points strongly at an unjust system which Jesus criticizes. I should have highlighted that more in my original post, but the subject is big enough to warrant its own post in the future.

    3) About Show: I agree that there’s a spectrum between secrecy and ostentatious giving, and that some transparency can be a good thing. What’s crucial is the spirit in which information is revealed.

    4) Has trillions of foreign aid been wasted? My sense is that 1) it’s been a necessary investment to learn how to do philanthropy right, and 2) trillions have been “wasted” in many other disposable-income activities as well, so you have to compare the money usage against other alternatives available at the time.

    5) I found the book I was thinking of: “The Billionaire Who Wasn’t: How Chuck Feeney Made and Gave Away a Fortune Without Anyone Knowing”. I hope to have time to read it and write a book review.

  16. Nic,

    Thanks for stimulating some good discussion. Is there any evidence that the widow’s action was coerced by accumulated Israelite Temple tradition? The first time I had seen this view, it was in Joel B. Green’s commentary on Luke, and I wrote in my own notes: Her particular victimization, if any, is not mentioned in the text. Moreover, it is uncertain – and unlikely – whether this Passover offering was mandatory by accumulated Israelite tradition (it certainly was not mandatory by Mosaic Law), a question that, if further research answers in the negative, would fatally undermine Green’s interpretation, since her offering would not have been required at all. The correct attitude, corresponding to Jesus’ teaching and exemplified by this widow, is to give up all one has for God. The fact that this episode appears in Mark and Luke (but not in Matthew, where a Jewish context would be quite natural) is even more significant. Mark and Luke wanted the widow to be recalled in Gentile churches so that her portrait would inspire great generosity towards God among the rich and poor alike. All Jesus’ disciples – rich and poor alike – are called to give to him all we own, all we have to live on. Hence, the words that best summarize Jesus’ teaching on material wealth are not ‘redistribution of wealth’ but ‘disinheritance’ and ‘universal giving.’

  17. Mako,

    You’re welcome 🙂

    I won’t attempt to argue your position (which seems well thought through) since I haven’t read Green’s commentary nor do I know anything about accumulated Israelite Temple tradition.

    All I can say is that:
    a) it seems to me like the passage, in context, addresses an example of how the scribes devour widows’ houses, therefore is more of a condemnation of the scribes than a praise of the widow; and
    b) in my experience, I have seen countless similar contexts in which the poor feel socially pressured into performing acts in front of the wealthy (or more educated, or higher class, or more “holy”, etc.).

    Could I be wrong about a) and b)? Of course. But based on my reading and my experience, I stand by my interpretation.

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