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?

Remembering the Poor: Film Edition

Central do Brasil (Central Station)Sin NombreOsamaBorn Into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids

I’m writing this from my home in Costa Rica after spending the last ten days in Chicago and Grand Rapids.  After two and a half years in Central America, visiting the US can be quite a jolt.  One of the things that hit me hardest on this trip was way in which most college-educated people in the US are nearly totally insulated from poverty.  It’s almost as though the quiet suburbs, trendy neighborhoods, and antiseptic offices of the professional class have been hermetically sealed off from the poor across town and across the world.  Despite globalization, most of us still live our lives in “gated communities” that keep the disturbing faces of the poor safely out of range.

I am convinced that this sociological reality is one of the most important factors that make biblical giving to the poor so difficult.  If a hungry family watched us eat through the windows of our favorite restaurant, how many of us would turn away?  If a woman brought her daughter dying of diarrhea to our doorstep, we would not refuse the few cents it took to save her.  But because these tragedies take place a car ride or a plane ride away from our daily lives, they become literally forgettable.

Many of us reading this blog do care about the suffering of others, and we want to make a difference, but we find daily life squeezing out our good intentions.  So what can we do? Well, for a start we can do the same thing that Paul did as he kicked off his missionary career: “remember the poor.” (Gal 2:10)  Paul’s commitment to remember the poor resulted in his massive collection for those suffering in Jerusalem, and left a strong mark on the New Testament.  (See, for example, I Cor 16:1-4, II Cor 8 & 9, Romans 15:26-29.)

Perhaps it would be helpful to think of “remembering the poor” as a spiritual discipline—just like praying or reading the Bible.   Of course, there are lots of ways to remember the poor, but let me just suggest one that you could act on even this week—watch a movie.  For me, films have often not only served as windows into the world outside my middle class bubble but they have steeled my resolve to keep giving and stay involved.  So, here are a few recommendations that

1) are not well known

2) are highly rated by critics, and

3) deal with poverty in a nuanced, non-sentimentalized way:


  • Central Station. How the lives of a Brazilian street child and an office worker become intertwined.

Central do Brasil (Central Station)

  • Sin Nombre. A harrowing account of gang violence along the Central American immigrant trail to the US.

Sin Nombre

  • Dirty Pretty Things. A brilliant look at the life of African and Turkish immigrants in London.

Dirty Pretty Things

  • Osama. Growing up as an Afghani girl under the Taliban.


  • Born into Brothels. Hopefully portrays the artistic potential of prostitutes’ children in Calcutta.

Born Into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids

  • Tsotsi. An intensely personal account of inequality in South Africa.


I’d love to hear your thoughts on these films or others you’d recommend as a way to “remember the poor.”

How to Have a Beautiful, Inexpensive Wedding

My friend and supervisor was the best man in a wedding this past weekend – which was one of three weddings that happened in one ceremony.  Yup, a triple wedding:  three sisters and each of their fiances got married at one time.  http://www.fox11online.com/dpp/news/local/Triple-wedding-three-times-as-nice.  And they did it in one hour.

The three sisters got engaged at around the same time.  They knew their family couldn’t afford three separate weddings.  So they rolled their three weddings into one.  Apparently it was beautiful; each couple was honored equally; and Dad hustled up and down the aisle to walk each of his daughters down.

I wonder how much Christian character it took for the three couples to plan the wedding?  Sometimes, it’s hard for just the bride and groom to agree on their wedding plans.  But for three brides and three grooms to plan one wedding?  Wow.  In American culture today, weddings tend to be an expression of the “personality” of the couple, so I admire anyone who gives that up for a larger goal.  It reminds me that the foundation of effective giving is faith and Christian character.  I wonder how much money they saved?

Until I heard this story, I thought I was just going to blog about my wife and I having a beautiful, inexpensive wedding.  All told, our wedding cost $5,000.  Of course, the tuxes and wedding dress cost $$.  For our ceremony, we rented a church building for $100.  We hired a photographer for $1000.  We paid $100 for a YWCA building right around the corner.  We rented coffee shop style tables and chairs.  We bought the reception food and asked friends to help us cook almost all of it.  That was the big money saver.  We had 250 people at the ceremony and reception.   Anyone else think of ways to express the value of simplicity through a wedding?