In praise of the widow’s mite

In the biblical Gospels of Mark and Luke we have the account of the widow’s mite. In this story Jesus and his disciples watch as worshipers come to place their offerings in one of thirteen trumpet-shaped offering containers located in a special section of the temple known as the treasury.

Many rich people stand in line, and they place large amounts of money in the offering boxes. Then a poor woman (the Greek word St. Luke uses is unusual and suggests a profound poverty) approaches the box. She waits while others are making their generous contributions and, when it is her turn, places her offering in the box.

She does not have much money to give, but she gives all that she has – two “mites” in the Shakespearean-era language of the King James Version. The underlying Greek word that is used signifies the lowest denomination of Jewish coinage that was minted. It took 132 such coins to equal the average daily wage of an agrarian worker. In contemporary terms, the woman – whom Jesus identifies as a widow – gives her last dollar.

This story has been a staple of the creative imagination. In 1863 Anthony Trollope wrote a short story he titled “The Widow’s Mite.” In his light style he asks a serious question: “How many of us, when we give, give from our own backs, and from out of our own mouths?”

Numerous short stories have taken their title from this account, including two that have been published in this decade. Television has also paid tribute: a 1958 Gunsmoke episode featured the same title. In addition, a host of writers allude to the widow’s mite, including Jane Austen, Herman Melville, Lord Byron and James Joyce, to name only a few.

Recent studies in biblical literature have debated whether the story is included in the Gospels as a testament to the widow’s generosity or as a reproach upon the greed of the religious authorities who ran the temple.

It is a debate that will probably never be settled, since the story serves to do both. It may even be that Mark included it to highlight the generosity of the widow and Luke (who was deeply sensitive to the plight of the poor) included it as a rebuke against ecclesiastical greed. In Luke’s case, this seems likely: in the verses preceding the widow’s story, Jesus scolds religious leaders who “devour widow’s houses”—that is, who prey upon poor widows for financial gain.

Jesus, who was aware of the both the plight of the poor and the generosity of the widow, seems to have had his own reasons for calling her gift to the attention of his students. He had long taught them to be generous with what they had while trusting God for what they needed. He found in this widow a living illustration of his teaching.

From Jesus’s point of view, this woman was not merely an illustration of generosity, but an example of what it means to have faith in God. His commentary on her action is worthy of reflection: “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.”

The rich people gave their money. The widow gave herself. (In the original language, she gave her “life.” The NIV tries to capture that nuance by translating it as “all she had to live on.”) Their gifts were an act of sacrifice. Her gift, to borrow from Trollope, was from her own back and her own mouth. An act of sacrifice, yes; but even more, it was an act of trust.

Jesus is not exaggerating when he says that the poor widow put in more than all the others. (Indeed, if we take the original language literally, Jesus’s words mean that her gift is worth more than all the others, combined.) They gave their money but she gave herself—an incomparably greater gift. Giving one’s money to meet a need is a noble and worthwhile deed, but giving one’s self is an act of worship and love.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter

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