A Poor Widow’s Offering

Reflection: Mark 12: 41 – 44

This little aside at the end of the chapter followed Jesus’ earlier debate with the religious authorities over aspects of loyalty, theology, the Law, and the identity of the Messiah (vv. 13-40). The portrayal of this unnamed widow sharpened the contrasts in righteousness between the pious establishment in Jerusalem and a soul wholly devoted to God. Jesus, always a discerning observer of the human heart, was seated on a bench, opposite the temple treasury in the court of the women, watching people bring their tithes before the priests who audited them. Several impressive sums of money were deposited. According to Josephus and other Roman historians, the temple was immensely wealthy at the time. But what caught His eye was a woman, whose poverty was indicated possibly by her clothing and the size of her gift. Immediately, He drew His disciples’ attention to her as she moved away.

The teaching moment was critical, as it defined what catches the eye of God compared to the values of human judgment (1 Sam 16:7). The disciples probably noticed the larger donations compared to the two leptas (which is equivalent to one-sixty fourth of a denarius; each lepta measures a centimeter in diameter). Surely, the value of these copper coins was negligible in terms of financing the temple and the religious hierarchy, but the Lord was not looking at these requisites, nor was He concerned with the probable mismanagement of temple funds. His interest was with the widow’s heart and her specific act of worship. Perhaps there was more than a tinge of sadness towards this poor woman. I cannot imagine Jesus drawing a lesson on giving as a commitment to God without any feelings for her dire situation; as her sacrificial gift represented all she had – to the extent that that was her whole living (v.44). The two coins would have bought her one meager meal or a handful of flour!

This story provides us with an important cue for the earlier disagreement between Jesus and the temple establishment (vv. 38-40). The Law of Moses specifically protected widows and orphans, and they enjoyed an important measure of economic and legal security (Ex 22:22; Deut 10:18), that included their right to partake of the temple tithes (Deut 14:29; 26:12–13), apart from enjoying special gleaning privileges (Deut 24:19–21). By this juncture in history, widows were among the most disregarded in society, and Jesus’ complaint against the religious institution was that they had failed to live up to its Mosaic obligations. Interesting to note that Jesus did not discourage giving despite the abuses extant within temple practice, as He delineated giving to God and the ultimate responsibility of the established religious order in their accountability to Him. Was this poor widow a victim of their oppressive policy, which prompted Him to exemplify her contribution?

The fact that she did not keep one lepta for herself and given the other, perhaps imply that God measures giving, not by what we give, but by what we keep for ourselves (v. 43-44), or another way of perceiving it – the value of the gift is not the amount given, but the cost to the giver. Was Jesus also attempting to press in His model of discipleship for His followers – that it is a call for absolute surrender to God? A major element of His teaching is that her attitude is more important than action; where the widow’s freewill giving demonstrates an attitude of unconditional trust in God (2 Cor 8:9). Although we are not privileged to a postscript on what happened to this widow thereafter, it is important to realize that even the poorest can make an offering to honour God, and that no gift to Him, whether of money, time, or talent is too insignificant when they are given in love and devotion. Ultimately, it is the giver that matters to God.