The story of the widow and her two mites is not a cheerful story meant to inspire Jesus’ followers to give even if they are down to their last dollar, but that is how most people use the story. Over the years, preachers of small, large, and mega churches will cite this story as a reason to turn their members upside down and shake out their pockets. Pastors, elders, and ministers guilt trip congregants who can barely afford rent, if that, into giving on Sunday by abusing this account from Luke. In today’s article, we will review the context of this passage to reveal what Jesus was really saying.
In my current read through the Bible, I am further blown away by how chapter divisions cause so much trouble for most students of the book. This is one of those cases. Although the story of the widow and her mites is in chapter 21, we must return to chapter 20 if we wish to understand the point Jesus is making. Here are the last three verses:
And while all the people were listening, He said to the disciples, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love respectful greetings in the market places, and chief seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets, who devour widows’ houses, and for appearance’s sake offer long prayers. These will receive greater condemnation.”Luke 20:45–47
The religious leaders could exploit widows by demanding tithes on top of the harsh tax placed upon the nation by Rome. Widows had little power or support, especially if they had no children, so the Bible spends a copious amount of time protecting and advocating for their rights. Here is a ridiculously small sample.
You shall not afflict any widow or orphan.Exodus 22:22
He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing.Deuteronomy 10:18
At the end of every third year you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in that year, and shall deposit it in your town. The Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance among you, and the alien, the orphan and the widow who are in your town, shall come and eat and be satisfied, in order that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do.Deuteronomy 14:28–29
Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.James 1:27
Jesus had condemned the religious elite for focusing on the letter of the Law so much that they neglected the spirit of the Law. On multiple occasions, Jesus healed on the Sabbath to show that mercy took precedent over sacrifice. It is within the context of the rich religious leaders devouring widow’s houses that we must read the account of the widow’s mites in chapter 21.
The Widow and Her Copper Coins
And He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury. And He saw a poor widow putting in two small copper coins. And He said, “Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all of them; for they all out of their surplus put into the offering; but she out of her poverty put in all that she had to live on.”Luke 21:1–4
First, we should commend the woman for her dedication. Her heart was in the right place, and her offering was voluntary. But that isn’t the point of the passage.
The fact that those two copper coins were “all she had to live on” exposes a failure of the religious leaders to uphold the Law. The Law included many safeguards for the typically forgotten in society, and the scribes copied these words thousands of times, so they knew they existed. This means that they intentionally overlooked these explicit commands to care for those who cannot care for themselves.
Jesus points out this situation to illustrate the point He was just making. “They devour widows’ houses, and this proves it.”
The sad irony is that pastors use this very passage to do the same thing Jesus was condemning.
The Widow’s Mites and Judgement
Immediately after making this comment about the widow, Jesus’ disciples point out the extravagant architecture and design of the temple. Jesus’ response is jarring.
And while some were talking about the temple, that it was adorned with beautiful stones and votive gifts, He said, “As for these things which you are looking at, the days will come in which there will not be left one stone upon another which will not be torn down.”Luke 21:5–6
What the widow did not know when she was giving everything she had to live on was that the very temple to which she contributed was about to fall. And if we go a little deeper, the prophet Isaiah and the followers of Jesus assert God doesn’t actually dwell in temples made with human hands (Isaiah 66:1-2).
These rich men were exploiting a poor widow to support a system doomed to fall within their lifetime. All their robes, long prayers, and beautiful stones would mean nothing in a few years. Trading pomp and circumstance for oppression of the poor is never worth it, but they would see their earthly treasures burn before their eyes.
God avenges the widows and the orphans, and they should have known that as scribes.
It is unfortunate that people use the story of the widow to do the very thing Jesus condemned. They use this poor widow and her mites to devour other widows’ houses, and that isn’t right. I’m not against anyone giving of their own free will, but preachers, pastors, and elders who make their poor attendees feel guilty and pressured into giving must come to their senses and stop this evil. The buildings, suits, and nice cars are temporary, but love never fails.