Jesus’ teaching about the widow who gave two pennies* into the Temple offering is one of the most beloved stories of Jesus. Who among us hasn’t had his or her heart stirred by a sermon about the sacrifice of the widow who gave all she had to the Temple? No church building campaign would be complete without at least one message about the widow. Pastoral challenges to give more sacrificially carry more punch with the Sunday faithful if we sprinkle in a reminder about this poor widow, praised by Jesus.
As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” (Luke 21:1-4)
Certainly, Jesus’ point was that the size of the gift doesn’t matter to God. What matters is the heart of the giver. This foundational lesson must never be forgotten. God looks at the heart and not at the number of zeroes in front of the decimal point.
Nonetheless, we should not overlook what Luke is also saying. Luke sandwiches this story of the widow between two other stories in order to also give a sober warning to religious leaders: Do not exploit the piety of the poor to squeeze every last dime out of them. Unfortunately, many preachers use the widow’s story to do the very thing that Luke’s Gospel tells us not to do.
How do we see Luke’s warning? It’s subtle, but it is where teachers and preachers should be able to find it. In Bible Interpretation 101, students are told one of the most foundational principles is context, context, context. You look at what is said right before and right after your passage. So, let’s do it here.
In the verse right before this, Jesus warns the crowd about religious elite:
“Beware of the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses** and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.” (Luke 20:46-47)
Then in the very next verse, Jesus points out a widow giving everything she has to the Temple. (There will be no money left to pay any debts.) “Ah,” we might protest, “but she is giving it to a noble cause. It’s a gift to God’s Temple.” Good point. So, in the very next verse, Luke comments on the Temple:
Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.” (Luke 21:5-6)
Our Bibles may put headings in between these stories, but Luke didn’t. Clearly he connected these stories by linking them with the words ‘widow’ and ‘temple’. Of course, we don’t want to lose sight of Jesus’ basic point. What makes a great gift to God isn’t the size of the gift; it’s the heart of the giver. God loves a cheerful giver. But for those who should be able to see it, Luke has another message.
Luke warns the religious elite (as he often does). Those of us who preach and teach the Word need to be careful. (James warns that those who teach are held to a higher standard; Ja. 3:1.) We should not use someone’s piety as a means of milking more money out of them. How many times has this story been used in a church campaign to raise money to embellish some part of a church building? The widow’s coins went to the Temple and were used to make the Temple more beautiful. Even Galilean fishermen were impressed by the beauty of the Temple: “Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God [like the widow’s].”
Jesus harrumphed and said, “it won’t last.”
*The widow gave two bronze lepta, which together equaled the smallest Roman coin, somewhat equivalent to a penny today. In old English the smallest coin they knew was a Dutch copper mite, so older English translations used “mite.”
**Obviously, the religious leaders weren’t termites. They consumed the property of the poor by foreclosing on debt. What Jesus’ hearers knew (that many of us today don’t) is that the Temple was one of the largest money lenders. The Temple wanted to make sure that foreclosed property would be sold to another Jew (who would tithe) rather than to a Gentile. So the poor were often in debt, and in debt to the Temple.
Jesus’ remark about the widow probably wasn’t praise for her generosity but compassion for her plight: she has given everything she has. But he also uses her example as a teachable moment for his disciples to show that God doesn’t look at the size of the gift but the heart of the giver.