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This widow of course is the widow from Mark 12:41-44 (cf Lk 21:1-4) who puts two small copper coins into the treasury collection box at the temple, while others are putting in great sums. Jesus says that she gave more than all of the others because she gave out of her poverty, and He did say that she gave all she had. But if you think that Jesus is commending her generosity or that she is an example to emulate in sacrificial giving, I hate to break it to you but you are using it wrong!
The key to understanding this passage is reading it in context. Immediately before the tale of the widow’s giving, Jesus warns of the danger of following the scribes.
And in his teaching he said, “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 honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” – Mark 12:38-40 (ESV)
There is a threefold description of the scribes here that is given as reasons to avoid their influence. They are motivated by self interest and a desire to be esteemed by men (thus they like the greetings and the good seats in the synagogues), they make long prayers for a pretense (the word for pretense, profasis means literally to pretend to be engaged in a particular activity, these aren’t pretentious prayers these are pretend prayers meant to deceive onlookers) and they devour widows houses.
And they went about devouring widows houses is a uniquely evil way. Scribes didn’t receive any payment directly for their work as experts in the Law, so they sought alternative revenue streams to make their expertise pay off, and one of their favorite ways was to befriend widows.
The scheme went like this. They would show up at a widow’s house, one without any children to look after her, often soon after the death of her husband. Because the scribe was an honored guest a lavish meal would be prepared for him. Then he would reappear repeatedly, every time eating a sumptuous feast at the expense of the widow. (If you are hosting a Thanksgiving meal, and have already bought all of your groceries, you know how quickly preparing 3 or four special occasion meals a week could bankrupt you.)
And since a widow often needed help with some legal matters and since the scribe was there anyway, he would offer her his services. And since the scribe was so understanding of her financial predicament (a widow in the first century wasn’t on a fixed income, she essentially had no income unless she had children to provide for her), he would offer to work for her on credit. And as other issues arose, the scribe would continue to extend his services and his credit to her. And when the debt became so large that she could have no hope of ever repaying it, the scribe would graciously agree to accept the deed to her home and property as payment, assuring her that she could stay in the home.
But often, owing to the unaffordable outlay that resulted from having a scribe (or scribes) as a friend, the widow may have had a roof over her head but really no way to provide for the other necessities of life. While she may have had a place to live, often she didn’t have long to live. By the way this kind of scribal behavior is outlined (favorably) in the Mishnah and (unfavorably) Josephus.
Read in this context the story of the widow’s two mites, immediately takes on a different light, it is not a separate unrelated event, it is an illustration to help the disciples understand Jesus’ warning. It is utterly inconceivable that a warning to avoid the influence of those who victimize widows would be followed by the appearance of a poor widow in the narrative, and the two passages would be unrelated. But to fully understand it, there are two key aspects of the story itself that must be understood, and the first is what she actually put in the collection box.
Translated as two mites, or two small copper coins, or even in the KJV as two pennies which make a farthing, the Greek text of the New Testament is actually specific about the denomination of coin the widow put into the temple coffers. She dropped in two lepton.
A lepta was the smallest denomination of coin circulating in first century Judea. A lepta is 1/128 of a denarius. A denarius was the typical day’s wage for a day laborer at the time. Day laborers and their families lived a very hand to mouth existence, so a way to think of the value of a lepta is that it is 1/128 of what a family needs to survive for one single day. The widow gave 1/64 of what a family needed to survive for a single day. And while families, were larger they weren’t typically 62 kids strong, especially those of day laborers. What this woman put into the offering box was not even enough for her to get through one single day.
The second thing you need to realize is how Jesus described her donation “She put in everything she had to live on (Mark 12:44).” This was the sum total of all of her worldly assets, she didn’t even have enough to get through one more day, so she just gave what little she had left in an effort to earn her way into heaven. This was essentially a suicide by donation.
Jesus described the scribes as those who devour widow’s houses and here is an illustration of what a widow whose house has been devoured looks like. She has no hope of even feeding herself for one more day. The picture painted by the widow’s gift isn’t inspiring, it is stomach churning.
I hope you are regularly giving to you local church, it is an essential part of worship, and if you never give to your local church, you need to examine your heart. God does love a cheerful giver (2 Cor 9:6-7), and your local church does depend on your giving, but I sincerely hope that you never give like the widow, because that would mean you have been the victim of false teachers.
[For more information on this passage click here and listen to “Devouring Widow’s Houses]