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September 2, 2020
The story of the widow’s mite is an often overlooked and highly instructive and powerful narrative in the gospels.
Like the widow’s offering itself, the story is small and easily dismissed by onlookers.
But keen readers will notice the profound principles in which the story instructs believers today.
The principle is small, but exists at the axis point of Christian spirituality.
Like a car key, this small portion of text recorded by Mark and Luke makes the difference between real spirituality and the sham spirituality that reduces God and his plan to the optics of self-improvement.
In this article, we’re going to explore what the story of the widow’s mite meant in the original context, how the church has utilized this story to create a vision for a relationship with God and ethical Christian behavior, and how the story of the widow’s mite can be instructive for the church today.
The story of the widow’s mite describes a widow who gives two small copper coins to the temple treasury. Jesus witnesses this offering and describes how great her gift is, because it represents a greater proportion of her wealth than the larger gifts of other religious leaders.
Traditionally, the story has been interpreted alongside 2 Corinthians 9:7: “for God loves a cheerful giver." And yet, the story does not say anything about the widow’s disposition. It merely indicates how much she gave, what portion of her belongings she gave, and Jesus’s interpretation of her actions—that is, his evaluation of what her actions indicated about her moral and religious character.
It will be beneficial to read the two gospel accounts of this story in tandem:
“Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.’
As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” ‘Do you see all these great buildings?’ replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”
“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.’
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.’”
First, these stories seem fairly similar—and in context, they are nearly identical. Both Mark and Luke locate this passage in identical topical flows of content, meaning the chapter leading up to the story and the chapter afterward are nearly identical in structure. What little variation occurs highlights the variety of emphasis between the two gospel accounts.
Second, notice the difference in the account of how Jesus witnessed the widow. In Mark, Jesus was sitting down opposite the place where offerings were put, intentionally watching the crowd put money into the treasury. In Luke, Jesus merely glanced toward the treasury—”As Jesus looked up, he saw…”—indicating that the widow’s offering caught his eye in the slice of attention Jesus gave to the treasury. Mark highlights the way that Jesus was prepared to have an encounter like this, and the other highlights the way that unforeseen encounters can carry significant spiritual instructions.
Third, in Mark, his disciples use the temple as a counterpoint to the value of the widow’s offering. They make the case that the temple is built of great gifts, not of copper coins. Jesus, of course, counters with the apocalypse—that the temple will be torn down. In Luke, however, the temple discourse is construed as a new topic entirely, in which the disciples change conversation by making note of the temple’s grandiosity.
All three of these points help us to navigate the fine points of dissimilarity between the gospel accounts which can be instructive for us as readers in spiritual lessons about giving, finance, value, generosity, and wealth.
Before we delve into the application of these finer points of meaning in the gospels, it will be helpful to understand how this passage has been used throughout church history to propel Christ’s vision of generosity in the church:
St. Ambrose is commenting in the 4th century, and so makes certain commentary with which modern interpreters are not familiar, or find distasteful, such as identifying the widow’s two copper coins with the two gospels.
However, his ethical applications of the passage are worthy of note and stand on solid interpretive ground. These serve as sound homiletical points for preachers with an eye to exposit this passage:
“And considering the mystical sense, one must not despise this woman casting in two mites into the treasury. Plainly the woman was noble who in the divine judgment was found worthy to be preferred to all. Perchance it is she who of her faith has given two testaments for the help of man, and so no one has done more. Nor could any one equal the amount of her gift, who joined faith with mercy. Do you, then, whoever you are, who exercise your life the practice of widowhood, not hesitate to cast into the treasury the two mites, full of faith and grace.
Happy is she who out of her treasure brings forth the perfect image of the King. Your treasure is wisdom, your treasure is chastity and righteousness, your treasure is a good understanding, such as was that treasure from which the Magi, when they worshipped the Lord, brought forth gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matthew 2:11) setting forth by gold the power of a king, venerating God by the frankincense, and by myrrh acknowledging the resurrection of the body. You too have this treasure if you look into yourself: For we have this treasure in earthen vessels (2 Corinthians 4:7).
You have gold which you can give, for God does not exact of you the precious gift of shining metal, but that gold which at the day of judgment the fire shall be unable to consume. Nor does He require precious gifts, but the good odour of faith, which the altars of your heart send forth and the disposition of a religious mind exhales.
From this treasure, then, not only the three gifts of the Magi but also the two mites of the widow are taken, on which the perfect image of the heavenly King shines forth, the brightness of His glory and the image of His substance.
Precious, too, are those hardly earned gains of chastity which the widow gives of her labour and daily task, continually night and day working at her task, and by the wakeful labour of her profitable chastity gathering treasure; that she may preserve the couch of her deceased husband unviolated, be able to support her dear children, and to minister to the poor. She is to be preferred to the rich, she it is who shall not fear the judgment of Christ.
Strive to equal her, my daughters: It is good to be zealously affected in a good thing. Galatians 4:18 Covet earnestly the best gifts. 1 Corinthians 12:31 The Lord is ever looking upon you, Jesus looks upon you when He goes to the treasury, and you think that of the gain of your good works assistance is to be given to those in need. What is it, then, that you should give your two mites and gain in return the Lord's Body?
Go not, then, empty into the sight of the Lord your God (Exodus 34:20) empty of mercy, empty of faith, empty of chastity; for the Lord Jesus is wont to look upon and to commend not the empty, but those who are rich in virtues. Let the maiden see you at work, let her see you ministering to others. For this is the return which you owe to God, that you should make your return to God from the progress of others. No return is more acceptable to God than the offerings of piety."
“Further, to multiply the cause is to multiply the effect. If therefore corporal almsdeeds cause a spiritual effect, the greater the alms, the greater the spiritual profit, which is contrary to what we read (Luke 21:3) of the widow who cast two brass mites into the treasury, and in Our Lord's own words "cast in more than ... all.
Therefore bodily almsdeeds have no spiritual effect. … The widow who gave less in quantity, gave more in proportion; and thus we gather that the fervor of her charity, whence corporal almsdeeds derive their spiritual efficacy, was greater.”
“If you are rich and see your neighbor is poor, serve him with your possessions.”
“Verily I say to you. This reply of Christ contains a highly useful doctrine that whatever men offer to God ought to be estimated not by its apparent value, but only by the feeling of the heart, and that the holy affection of him who according to his small means, offers to God the little that he has, is more worthy of esteem than that of him who offers a hundred times more out of his abundance.
In two ways this doctrine is useful, for the poor who appear not to have the power of doing good, are encouraged by our Lord not to hesitate to express their affection cheerfully out of their slender means; for if they consecrate themselves, their offering, which appears to be mean and worthless, will not be less valuable than if they had presented all the treasures of Croesus.
On the other hand, those who possess greater abundance, and who have received from God larger communications, are reminded that it is not enough if in the amount of their beneficence they greatly surpass the poor and common people; because it is of less value in the sight of God that a rich man, out of a vast heap, should bestow a moderate sum, than that a poor man, by giving very little, should exhaust his store.
This widow must have been a person of no ordinary piety, who, rather than come empty into the presence of God, chose to part with her own living. And our Lord applauds this sincerity, because, forgetting herself, she wished to testify that she and all that she possessed belonged to God. In like manner, the chief sacrifice which God requires from us is self-denial.
As to the sacred offerings, it is probable that they were not at that time applied properly, or to lawful purposes; but as the service of the Law was still in force, Christ does not reject them. And certainly the abuses of men could not prevent the sincere worshippers of God from doing what was holy, and in accordance with the command of God, when they offered for sacrifices and other pious uses.
“See what judgement is cast on the most specious, outward actions by the Judge of all! And how acceptable to him is the smallest, which springs from self-denying love!”
“Paul bore record that their liberality was up to the utmost limit of their power, “yea, and beyond their power.” A little from them would have been more than a much larger sum from richer people. Our gifts are not to be measured by the amount we contribute, but by the surplus kept in our own hand. The two mites of the widow were, in Christ’s eyes, worth more than all the other money cast into the treasury, for “she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.”
Based on our understanding of this passage in the original text, and the multiple ways that ministers have used the story of the widow’s mite to extend a Christian vision for generosity through millennia, there are important points of application the preacher can make when expositing this passage.
First, see the spiritual beneath the physical. Jesus wasn’t willing to quantify the widow’s offering, measured against the other offerings, and play the game of the wealthy. Jesus saw more meaningful analytics beneath the surface—the analytics of proportion indicate sacrifice, and the analytics of objective value do not. Jesus took into account all the data, not so that he could downplay the role of large gifts or wealthy gifts, but so that he could attribute positive—even special and exemplary—value in the widow’s offering and in those like it.
Second, see the value of sacrifice. The value of sacrifice is a means that helps those who are poor to see the real spiritual value in their gift. Giving isn’t about what percentage of the church’s budget you support, but what amount of your budget you use to give margin to yourself so that you know you belong to God. The original reason why God instituted “sacrifice” was because it was supposed to mean something spiritual. Eventually, “sacrifice” became a formality, so Jesus had to re-explain the meaning of sacrifice when he said: “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:13).
Third, publicly valuate sacrifice as a virtue. Jesus was willing to publicly stake a claim for this woman. He didn’t know her. All he knew was that she lost her husband and her wellbeing. Was she cruel? Was she evil? Was she worthy of scorn? It wouldn’t have affected Jesus’s valuation one way or the other. Sacrifice is intrinsically valuable, and giving to the church as a sacrifice is a way to mold your own heard to the desires of God. It is an objective and public first step in conforming your own desire for power to the desires of God for mercy and for relationship.
Fourth, do not be distracted by the glimmer of gold. The disciples were watching gifts to the temple treasure as if watching a sport. The proof is that after Jesus values the widow’s offering, they respond: “But look at this amazing temple! It wasn’t built with offerings like ‘two copper coins.’” They missed the spiritual miracle that occurred right in front of them, because they failed to see anything deeper than the shiny stones of which the temple was made.
Fifth, remember that all will pass away. Shiny stones pass away. Gold will melt. Kingdoms will fall. Power will shift hands. Over and over again. Until one day, God will have all the stones, all the gold, all the kingdoms, and all the power. At that time, each person will only have their heart to give. Each person will only have themselves to give. And this is why sacrifice is a greater indicator of eternal worth—not because Christians are financial masochists, but because it more greatly resembles what we will give God when he comes again for us.
First, consider what sacrificial giving is for you and your family. What does it look like to sacrifice for the kingdom? What gift would put you outside your “comfort zone” so that you are sharing the hardships of the kingdom with the church on God’s mission? If you’re not asking these questions of yourself, you might not be leaning heavily enough into the spiritual reality that Jesus finds praiseworthy in this widow.
Second, consider not just how to increase tithes in your church, but how to increase generosity in your church. This is an important point, because a church that only has a big bank account, without any ability to get a sense of the hearts of its congregants, is in trouble. The purpose of giving is to change the giver and to resource the kingdom, not to create a comfortable bubble. Generosity is a moral quality that God desires in his people, not just an action that he requires to be repeated arbitrarily and without a heartfelt sense of mission.
Third, don’t use giving as a way to give to yourself. Use giving as a real opportunity to give in line with God’s own heart for resourcing kingdom work. In other words, don’t give so that you can say “Look at me!” Give so that you can say, “Look at what God is doing.”
First, orient your church’s fundraising strategy in terms of smaller recurring gifts rather larger “special” gifts. Small recurring gifts are better than one-time “big” gifts, because having a recurring platform enables you to relate to your donors in terms of their “lifetime value,” rather than their “right now value.”
Second, pastors too concerned with building flashy things can become tiresome for long-time donors and can feel superficial to first-time visitors. Be sure to cultivate a church culture that always values the small gifts—that values the spiritual cost behind a gift more than its cash-value to meet a line-item on the church’s budget. Make sure that your church’s culture is pointed toward valuing what God himself values.
First, always be on the lookout for God’s work beneath material realities. Jesus was able to do this in the story of the widow’s mite. The world is not always what it seems. If your evaluation of what’s happening in your church could be given exhaustively by a business analyst, not enough is happening in your church. Some things that happen in the church are genuinely acts of God.
This widow’s act of generosity was a work of God in her heart to give to the temple treasury—this is why Jesus valued it as so precious, because it was a work of God. Be on the lookout for God’s acts beneath and behind human acts. You’ll find an endless supply of grace and blessing where you otherwise would have found only cold coincidence.
Second, church giving is an essential part of discipleship—rich or poor. Jesus didn’t say, “She would have been more wise to save those two copper coins and buy some bread.” Jesus recognizes the spiritual value of giving, even when it costs. Discipleship always costs us something. In the case of Jesus, being a member of his church creates the kind of generosity that gives–even if all you have to rub together are two copper coins.
Third, Jesus is concerned with a church’s financial management. In an ideal world, that woman’s community should be giving to her. Part of giving ot the church is the expectation that, on the other end, the church is actually helping people with the money it receives.
Fourth, Jesus is just as concerned with the spiritual health of the givers as he is with the spiritual health of the church leadership managing the money. Notice that Jesus was not critiquing how the temple treasury was spent, but the moral quality of those who were giving. This is just as important as the moral quality of those handling the money.
The story of the widow’s mite is an opportunity for our own hearts to be changed.
We are all widowed and destitute in our own way.
And if we aren’t, then one day, we will be—even if it’s on our death beds.
God calls us to give him what we can, and to give to the church.
God always wants to bring together those who need and those who give.
God always wants to prompt generosity in those who belong to him and to prompt church-belonging in those who don’t belong to him, creating an evergreen example of arising prayers for needs-met and arising answers to prayers for needs-met.
At various phases in our lives, we are on either side of those prayers.
May we manifest the merciful heart of God to those in need as we ask him to make us as generous toward the church as the widow with her two copper coins.
Ask yourself: “What are my two copper coins, and how can I give them?”
Mark recounts how Jesus was watching and waiting for those who were putting money into the temple treasury.
He was interested.
He is still interested.
He is still watching and waiting.