'As Jesus taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
He 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.”'
--Mark 12: 38-44
Cover art for Weird Al's album Bad Hair Day, which features the song Everything You Know Is Wrong
The great modern singer and philosopher Weird Al Yankovic once had a song called Everything You Know Is Wrong, where he sang that, “everything you thought was just so important doesn’t matter.” Now, I’m not going to say that EVERYTHING we know about this week's Gospel story—what we often call the Widow’s Mite—is wrong, but in my research over the past week or so new insights and information has come to light, and I started seeing that there is a lot more going on in this story than what we have historically focused upon.
An Eastern Christian mosaic of the story of the Widow's Mite
A classic reading of the story of the Widow’s Mite, where a poor widow gives all of her money to the Temple treasury, portrays the widow as the ideal model for giving, someone who offers everything she has, who gives till it hurts. This passage always shows up in the fall, meaning that it is often connected with stewardship season—"What is God asking of us?" the preacher might say, and the answer is inevitably, “Look to the poor widow who gives all that she has.” Moreover, this Gospel gets paired with the story in the First Book of Kings where the prophet Elijah visits another poor widow, whose small amount of meal and oil manages to feed herself, the prophet, and her son. Put these two together and the message of the day seems obvious: if even the poor offer what they have faithfully, God will turn it into an abundance.
While there is truth to that statement, especially where the Hebrew Testament story is concerned, it’s not really what’s going on in the Gospel, and using the story of the Widow’s Mite as an example of what faithful giving looks like is dangerously problematic. Such an approach is very much aligned with the so-called Prosperity Gospel, which preaches a message that says your favor with God is measured by your success in life, namely your money, your possessions, and your career, all of which are signs of God’s blessings. For the poor this Gospel preaches that they too can have such abundance if they but plant a seed; that is, give money to a church—or sometimes a pastor—and then watch that seed bloom and grow into blessing upon blessing. All you have to do is turn on any televangelist and you’ll see folks using the poor widow in this story as an example of someone who gave what she had faithfully, who planted such a seed. "Who knows what blessings came her way!" those preachers say, "And the same can be true for you if you plant that seed!" My own maternal grandmother, whom I called Mammie, was one such poor person who heard preachers like Jimmy Swaggerd, Pat Robertson, and Benny Hinn ask folks to plant seeds and give to their ministries. Let’s just say the blessings she was hoping to receive back never arrived.
An example of the Prosperity Gospel in action, courtesy of Pastor Benny Hinn
But poor folks like my Mammie continue to give; in fact, a 2010 New York Times Magazine article entitled The Charitable Giving Divide, points out that that those with smaller incomes continue to give more, by percentage of their resources, than the wealthy. The poor give more than the rich! Perhaps it is because they have heard the Prosperity Gospel preached so much and have heard sermon after sermon using the poor widow as a model that they think this is what Jesus is asking them to do, to give until it hurts in order that blessings may come there way. But that’s not what is happening in this Gospel; in fact, Jesus’ reason for even pointing out the poor widow has nothing to do with her giving—if it did surely he would have said some words of praise about her actions like, “Go and do like this poor widow,” or he would have commended her for being so faithful. Instead, he just states what is literally happening: “she out of her poverty has given everything she had, all she had to live on.” This isn't so much a story about giving but about Jesus’ condemnation of the system that has made this woman have to give all she has, the economic injustice brought on by the religious-political collaboration under which Jesus and his people lived.
We have talked all year about one of the greatest themes of Mark’s Gospel, that the Kingdom of God has come near. Throughout his ministry Jesus has repeatedly proclaimed that it is the Kingdom of God, not the Kingdom of Man, that reigns supreme. We might at first think that he is simply condemning the Roman Empire, but there’s more to it than that. In his book The Last Week Marcus Borg points out that 1st century Palestine was defined by a collaboration between religious and political authorities. In exchange for obedience and tax money, the Roman Empire effectively let the religious authorities do as they wished, and the religious authorities benefited from their collaboration with the Romans, using their social location to shore up power and wealth at the expense of individuals like the poor widow. Jesus repeatedly calls this behavior out, as he does in the first section of our Gospel text above. “Beware of the scribes,” he says, those who were the entrepreneurs of the religious establishment, a literate class in an illiterate society who, as Jesus puts it, devoured widow’s houses. How did they do that? Usually by administering loan agreements and then foreclosing on widows’ property when they couldn't repay the loan. They were meant to care for the most vulnerable, namely widows and orphans, and instead they bleed them dry. It is this economic, religious, and social structure which the scribes and others were caught in that Jesus comes to deconstruct and call out for its evil treatment of the poor and vulnerable.
Enter the widow, who literally gives to the Temple treasury—the physical symbol of this corrupt collaboration—everything she has. Such an offering is an illustration of how caught up she is in this web of corruption, herself feeling compelled to give far beyond her means in the hopes that she will receive blessings; after all, she should have kept one of those coins since the Law decreed she only give 10%, not 100%. It’s the first century version of the Prosperity Gospel! Jesus does not praise her behavior, but rather he decries the corruption and injustice that have created the conditions for such a scene to take place. The widow serves as a concrete example of how innocent people are victimized by those religious authorities like the scribes. Jesus’ comments with regard to the widow simply highlight what he has already said about the scribes, continuing his condemnation of their unjust actions as a result of this web of corruption that they're caught in, for rather than caring for this woman as the law had directed them to do, they are robbing her of her last penny. This denunciation has been going on for nearly the whole Gospel, and it has come to a head here in the Tuesday of Holy Week, the day this scene takes place. As the conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities is reaching its nadir, Jesus points to this poor woman who, in her destitution, perfectly represents those many vulnerable ones who have been devoured by those in power. To sum it up: Jesus words are not praise for a poor person who gives up all of her money, but a lament for such a person and the unjust system that, through collaboration between corrupt politicians and preachers, allows the rich to keep getting richer and the poor to continually be taken advantage of.
Where, then, is the Good News for us if the point is not to focus on the widow’s giving? I would offer that the story of the Widow’s Mite is a wake-up call. We have the chance now to tell this story for what it really is, not an example of holy and sacred giving, but a naming of a corrupt system that benefited the rich and took advantage of the poor. We still see this today. The Prosperity Gospel is still preached, and while the wealthy keep giving from their affluence with no consequences the poor keep giving what little they have in the hopes that blessings will somehow come their way. This is not what Jesus is about! And so the Good News, the Gospel, for us is that Jesus calls those who would follow him to reject a way of being that would continue to raise up the rich and powerful while trampling on the poor and vulnerable, for it is the most vulnerable among us whom God loves so dear and calls us each to care for.
No, brothers and sisters, everything we know about the Widow's Mite, everything we have heard preached on it over the years, is not wrong! This story does invite all of us to examine the nature of our own giving, that's true, but it also asks us to think about the webs of corruption and injustice of our own day, how we sometimes play a role in perpetuating such ways of being, often without realizing it, so strong and old are the webs. We are then encouraged by this story to wonder what we may do about addressing those webs. Perhaps we have inadvertently measured worth in terms of how much money one puts into a treasury, offertory plate, or stewardship campaign, for example. So then we may also ask ourselves: what might we do to make our faith community, and our society, for that matter, more equitable? In what ways might we make every effort to see that the most vulnerable among us is cared for without feeling shame or guilt? Maybe we can start by reminding folks that money and possessions are not actually signs of God's blessing and favor. Maybe we can focus less on how much or how little someone is giving and more on undoing unjust systems that take advantage of the poor. Let’s name the corruption when we see it and stand with the most vulnerable among us. That was Jesus’ work, after all, and it continues to be our work today. For it is the work that truly sows the seeds of the Kingdom. Thanks be to God for the widow, for her mite, and for the Good News.