a widow’s mite

True generosity

The widow is unnamed, just a face in the crowd. Despite this her story has been told and retold over many centuries.

Main themes of the story

  • It is not the size of a gift that matters, but what remains after it has been given (see below)
  • Just before this story in Mark’s gospel, Jesus has been teaching and debating in the Temple courts. He has been surrounded by the opulence and luxury of King Herod the Great’s newly constructed Temple. Money, money, money, everywhere. This story encapsulates his reaction to the values (or lack of them) behind the lavish buildings on the Temple Mount.

The story of the Widow has two parts:

1. Jesus sees her as she places her offering in the Temple Treasury

2. He points her out to his disciples as a model of true generosity


Who was the widow?

Fayum portrait

Immediately before this story begins, we are given a hint as to why it appears in the gospels at all. After all, the woman in the story is a nobody, penniless and alone in a society that values wealth and family connections. Why is she even mentioned?

What we discover is that she has something all the rich people in the Temple courtyard will never have: the admiration of Jesus of Nazareth.

We are given a hint of who she is by the positioning of her story. In the previous chapter there has been heated controversy about a whole range of questions: who is God, whom should we obey, what are our responsibilities? And the words written immediately before her story begins mention the way poor people’s rights are trampled on by the rich and powerful:

38 And in his (Jesus’) teaching he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to go about in long robes, and to have salutations in the market places
39 and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at feasts,
40 who devour widows’ houses and for a pretence make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

Groundplan, Jerusalem temples of Ezra and HerodIt’s worth remembering that in the years immediately preceding this incident, King Herod the Great had taken over large areas of Jerusalem to provide land to extend the Temple Mount and its huge administration blocks, colleges, and priests’ quarters. You can see this by comparing the ground plans of the earlier Temple precincts (built by Solomon and Ezra) with the grand Temple built by King Herod. At right are two plans,

  • one of the Temple Ezra constructed on the same scale as Solomon’s Temple,
  • and the other, grander Temple Herod built at the time of Jesus.

The extra land needed for Herod’s Temple precinct must have been gained by the demolition of existing buildings. It’s very possible that ‘widow’s houses’ had actually been destroyed to make way for the new Temple buildings, and even that the widow in the story had been among those robbed of their homes in this land repossession..

What was the treasury?

The ‘treasury’ mentioned in the story could have been one of two things:Pile of gold coins

  • a specially designated room next to the Women’s Court or
  • a receptacle for offerings; along the colonnade which surrounded the Court of the Women there were thirteen chests with trumpet-shaped openings (Hebrew sapaiw) provided for offerings from the worshippers.

The ‘small copper coins’ mentioned in the story were the smallest amount in circulation at the time of Jesus, the least valuable coin available (see an example at the top of this page). A ‘penny’ was the Roman quadrans, which was 1/64 of the daily wage for an ordinary worker.

Reconstruction of the Jerusalem Temple built by King Herod the Great

(Above) Reconstruction of the Jerusalem Temple built by King Herod the Great. The Women’s Court, where Jesus saw the widow, is the courtyard in the left of the picture.

Reconstruction of the 1st century Temple in Jerusalem

(Above) Reconstruction of the 1st century Temple in Jerusalem. The Women’s Court where this story unfolded is in the upper left of this photograph

painting of the Presentation in the Temple

This painting of the Presentation in the Temple shows the steps leading up into the Men’s Court of the Temple; women were not allowed past this point.

What happened?

Jesus sat at some vantage-point in full view of this part of the Temple. He was probably weary from the day’s prolonged debates. His eye fell upon the solitary figure of a poor widow who put in two copper coins (Greek lepta, the smallest copper coin in use) which the evangelist Mark, for the benefit of his Roman readers, computes in terms of Roman coinage as equivalent to a penny (Greek kodrantés).

He called the attention of the disciples to the woman. She had given two of the tiniest coins in circulation (‘mites’) as her offering, alongside the large gifts of the rich. In the sight of Jesus her gift was the greatest, for what God measures is not so much the size of the gift as what remains after it has been given. In this particular case the donor had given her whole income.

The lesson of the story is that Jesus’ first concern is not what men have, or give, but how they give it. Money in itself has no value in the kingdom of God; so Jesus refused to count totals. Instead he looked at the motives of the donor. The essence of all true giving is sacrifice, and the value of every gift relative, not absolute.

Notice that in Luke’s retelling of the story, Jesus contrasts the rich donors and this poor widow not once but three times, to emphasize the glaring difference between the two sorts of people.


The Bible text

Mark 12:41-44

41 And he sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the multitude putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums.
42 And a poor widow came, and put in two copper coins, which make a penny.
43 And he called his disciples to him, and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.
44 For they all contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living.”

Luke 21:1-4

1 He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury;
2 and he saw a poor widow put in two copper coins.
3 And he said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them;
4 for they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all the living that she had.”

Reconstruction of the Temple of Jerusalem


Notes

  • This story brings welcome relief after the heat of controversy preceding it, for here is one who, in her simplicity, gave to God everything she had. It was no doubt positioned deliberately by Mark, because he put the story of the devouring of widows’ houses immediately before (verse 40).
  • 41 It is not certain that there was a building called the treasury (Greek gazophylakion) but along the colonnade which surrounded the Court of the Women there were thirteen chests with trumpet-shaped openings (Hebrew sapaiw) provided for the offerings of the worshippers. At some vantage-point in full view of this part of the Temple Jesus sat, probably wearied by the prolonged teaching/arguments of the day. The lesson of the whole story is that Jesus’ first concern is not what people give but how they give it. Money in itself has no value in the kingdom of God; so Jesus refused to count totals but looked at the motives of the donor (see 2 Corinthians 8:12).
  • 42 Therefore when his eye fell upon the solitary figure of a poor widow who put in two copper coins (Greek lepta, the smallest copper coin in use) which Mark, for the benefit of his Roman readers, computes in terms of Roman coinage as equivalent to a penny (Greek kodrantés, a transliteration of the Latin quadrans, ‘a farthing’)
  • 43, 44 In answer to the question of how Jesus came to know the amount of her gift, he may have discovered by quite ordinary means which are not disclosed; but in any case the question is irrelevant to the story. The essence of all true giving is sacrifice, and the value of every gift relative, not absolute.

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