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?