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Widow's mite

The widow’s might

Widow's mite

For many churches this is stewardship season. Time to get more voluntary work, and most especially more money out of the congregants!

And Sunday’s Gospel reading was perfect to get that last bit of extra money out of them:

Jesus sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’

All around the world there will have been sermons which explained differences in coins in Jesus’ time; quotes from the Mishna about the 13 trumpet-shaped, labelled donation systems at the temple, and explanations of the different noises made as donations were put in them; ideas about how Jesus knew the economic status of the woman; about whether Jesus received special, magic knowledge about her; about whether Jesus is exaggerating (as he does, from time to time) to make a point, in saying this was “everything she had”. And then many a sermon will have been topped off with a pious quote from Thérèse of Lisieux, or from Mother Teresa of Calcutta: “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” Done. Got you! Fill out the forms. Pass the collection plate.

Bear with me. Imagine, for a moment, you are in a mega-church. Up front the pastor is preaching about how God will multiply whatever you financially give to him. He is dressed in an expensive suit, occasionally flashes his pricey watch, and after this will drive in his luxurious car, back to his lavish home. Near you there is a woman you know who has just been deserted by her husband, she is mother of two small children, and her poorly-paying job has just been disestablished. It will be some weeks before she receives a benefit. And you watch her as she puts in what you know to be all she has into the collection plate as it comes by. How do you feel? I think most would feel appalled and horrified. And people are right to react to the scandalous hypocrisy of religion and its leadership that encourages this type of action.

Why should Jesus react any less?!

Look at what precedes and follows the widow’s story. It begins

As Jesus taught [in the temple], he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’

Next Sunday we pick up where this time we leave off:

As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’

So the frame of today’s story is

Beware of the scribes, … They devour widows’ houses
…Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’

Jesus is not praising the widow. The widow is an illustration of religious abuse. Jesus no sooner has condemned religious leaders than he draws attention to an example that, right there and then, illustrates his very point.

Now let’s be crystal clear: Jesus is not against long robes (spot what he’s wearing!), being greeted with respect, nor against buildings. The story starts with men who try to give the appearance of holiness by dressing up. Jesus says that is misleading. Then we look at people giving money – seemingly generous. Again Jesus says: that is misleading. The story continues with the temple, which appears so great. A third time Jesus says: that is misleading.

True holiness isn’t in the robes – it is in the way you care for each other, for others, for yourself, for the world. True generosity isn’t in the amount you give – it is something far richer. The true temple, where God abides, isn’t a building…

As we preach and teach, let us be cautious when our interpretation of the Bible reinforces our prejudices, rather than challenging us. And may we never use the Bible as a weapon against others for the benefit of ourselves…

May we reinforce the widow’s might – rather than the widow’s mite.

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12 thoughts on “The widow’s might”

  1. Thank you Bosco

    Good to see an image out of Africa also, fits well with a gospel of liberation (and not a prosperity anthem).
    Do you favor a church that builds endowments or should there be more given away than kept? But how can the church speak about money without allowing it to become a focus?

    1. Such good questions, thanks, Hugh. To which (surprise!) I think there are no easy answers.

      It seems to me that the church has become obsessed with sex – in a negative way. Jesus, of course, spoke far more about money than he ever did about sex. So faithfulness to him, I think, requires money to stay a focus.

      The danger with endowments IMO is that the church can run on complacently. Is the issue that the church & money is so often focused on survival of the institution – inward looking? If the church were more missional – outward looking – might people be far more enthusiastic about committing money to exciting ventures?


      1. Gillian Trewinnard

        Your comment about endowments fits well with my experience of a semi-rural parish that, over the last 15 years or so has not attempted to move with the times, welcome or accommodate younger people, or change in any way, with the result that there are now no people under the age of 60 except myself and a handful of others. They have been able to carry on like this because of an endowment.

  2. It is very common in the US for people who are members of a church- any denomination- to be encouraged,via preaching, to ‘tithe’ 10% of their income, because of traditional Jewish custom and Old Testament scripture.

    This is almost never coupled with New Testament scripture of Matthew 10 in the same sermon, Jesus encouraging his preachers to no material possession or pre-occupation.

    I remember when ministers of religion generally had very little, yet today they are often amongst the wealthiest most privileged people in society!

    And the poorer the society, the more affluent their preachers in comparison, eg.:


    Though truly I don’t think it’s any better a minister here being sent on training, holidays, missions etc without providing any of the finances themselves.

    If the members of your church don’t have healthcare- what makes the staff think they are more entitled to it?

    There’s a lot of tangled moral dilemma by asking people who can barely afford their own lives to fund someone else’s- in the name of God.

    1. Tracy, there is so much to reflect on. I am not one for much for movements – often being suspicious of bandwagons that everyone hops on to. One I feel secure about is Taizé. The monks do not receive money from the thousands of young people that gather around them. I think 10% is a silly oversimplification even of the Hebrew Bible approach to financing. I think the “graduated tithe” is a better starting point – less income, lower percentage; higher income, higher percentage. But, even then, (people will know by now I’m not one for rules for their own sake) it is the principle of that, not the maths, that is significant. And, to wrap up my comment, it’s attracting people to be part of an outward-looking, caring-for-others, approach that I think is what people want to invest in, not in helping finance the clergy to care for those in the fold ie. “user pays” (hmmm – that was a recent discussion here!). Blessings.

  3. The Taizé music is wonderful too!

    Your graduated tithe attitude is exactly what our recently re-elected president is suggesting in the US with regard to income-taxation: proposing that families who earn more than a quarter million dollars a year pay a little more tax, I think 3% was the last figure I saw suggested, though it’s currently in negotiation.
    People in other countries probably wonder what the outcry is all about- someone earning $250 000 currently pays 33 % tax, and the highest rate of taxation is currently 35 % for above $388 000 annual income.

    The average ( median ) US family income is @ $50 000, which family would expect to pay 25% in income tax.

    Almost 15 % of US families are food insecure according to September’s USDA Economic Research Report. This is the world’s richest large nation, self-proclaimed leader of the free world. Add in the 16 % of people in the US who don’t have healthcare, and that’s a lot of poverty, especially for a country where 73% of the population claim to practise Christianity.

    Here is a good church for social justice and community service in the US, one which grew out of a need to serve the people around them rather than hold onto their more conservative church members and their money: http://www.glide.org/

    1. Thanks, Tracy. I am taken by the thought under your last sentence. Our inability, often, to move forward with God because of a fear we may lose congregants and their giving. Blessings.

  4. Thank you for this. My church is in the midst of stewardship and my sermon this past Sunday fed on the same idea as your post, that the point of the lesson is about the askers and not the givers. Thanks for confirming that I’m not alone in my thinking. Love your site and have found it thought provoking and useful.
    Jon White

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