Bi-blog by Laurence Devlin
For the 5th instalment of our series on women in the Bible, we turn our attention to widows and more particularly to the one who appears in Mark 12:41-44 and Luke 21:1-4, the widow who gave two copper “lepton” (the smallest coins in existence in the Roman Empire) to the Temple treasury, while being observed by Jesus and his disciples. This is the episode known as the widow’s mite.
Whether in the Old Testament, the Gospels, Acts or Paul’s letters, the obligation to care for widows comes up very often: There are no less than 80 direct references to widows in the Scriptures! Why so many? In the ancient world, widows were generally poor and vulnerable as they had no security, no claim on their dead husband’s property, no male protection and very few independent resources. And as we know, the God who appears in the Scriptures is the kind of God who keeps a careful eye on the vulnerable, a kind of God who is “a father of the fatherless, a defender of widows” as Psalm 68 says.
In line with this, God commands the nation of Israel to care for widows and not take advantage of their vulnerability: “You shall not afflict any widow or orphan. If you afflict them in any way, and they cry at all to Me, I will surely hear their cry;” (Exodus 20:22). The strong obligations of children and grandchildren towards their parents (this is what the commandment “honour your parents” means) included caring for them and their welfare, especially if their mothers or grand- mothers were rendered totally vulnerable by widowhood. The book of Lamentations captures this sense of vulnerability by using the word “widow” to describe Jerusalem after Nebuchadnezzar razed the city.
Caring for vulnerable widows was therefore an absolute requirement of righteousness for Jews but when the nation of Israel turned away from serving God, they also turned away from his commandments and widows were among the first casualties. All the Old Testament prophets reproached those who wronged widows and called the nation back to its God-given responsibilities, for example in Isaiah 10:1-3, Jeremiah 22:1-5, Ezekiel 22:6-7. In the New Testament, apart from Jesus himself, Paul in his first Letter to Timothy treats extensively the issue of community support for widows. At the same time, widows are encouraged to make positive contributions to the church’s ministry. And James in the first chapter of his Letter writes: “Let’s be clear about the nature of real religion. It must be visible and practical. It visits widows and orphans in their trouble as well as maintains moral purity in an evil world.”
Let’s now turn to the specific episode of the widow’s mite recounted both in Mark and Luke. This is the Markan version:
41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 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. 44 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: 41-44)
The traditional interpretation of this episode makes a heroine of the widow, someone whose generosity is worth emulating, a selfless giver who gives until it hurts. However, I would venture to say that if we think that little vignette is about encouraging generous giving, we are totally missing the point, and this for two reasons: First, Jesus does NOT commend the widow for what she did, does NOT say “go and do likewise” and does NOT pronounce any words of praise. He just observes what she has done and points it out to the disciples’ attention.
Secondly, we should always remember that the Gospels are not a collection of independently assembled inspirational stories but whole narratives where what comes before and after, often gives the meaning to the passage itself. Consequently, it is important to notice that the widow’s mite episode comes right after Jesus’ condemnation of the Scribes who were the ones administering the Jerusalem Temple and who were part of the great Sanhedrin, the chief Jewish legislative and judicial body: “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at feasts but who devour widows’ houses and for a pretence, make long prayers” (Mark 12: 38-40). Prior to witnessing the widow’s offering, Jesus had therefore been teaching his disciples about systems of social inequity, of imbalance in the religious, political, and social structures of his day. By rebuking the teachers of the law specifically for devouring widows’ houses, he condemns the premeditated, predatory greed that targets a vulnerable group. The point of that story is not therefore that the widow has so generously given her only two remaining coins but that she had been “devoured” to the point of having only two tiny copper coins left to live on!
This is the last teaching of Jesus’ public ministry: four days later he will be killed. So maybe we can draw a parallel between the widow giving her last penny to a corrupt institution and Jesus giving his life to a corrupt world. For us in any case the lesson is two-fold: First, can we identify and do something about the structures that allow injustices and poverty to continue to this day and secondly the immediate needs of human beings should always take precedence over the established rules and customs dictated by an institution.