Teaching in the temple, Jesus 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.”
On the surface this passage seems pretty straightforward; religious leaders who walk around looking for prestige and position are condemned. And then a widow who gives all of her money is praised. The lesson here is that we should humble ourselves, and give everything we have to the church/God. This is how I was taught this passage growing up. It belonged with the “give until it hurts” mantra. There was also an underlying message that if you gave until it hurt you would either get more back or, at the very least, be taken care of.
In reading this passage again I see some new things. I notice the repetition in the mention of widows: In the first part the religious leaders are chided for devouring widows’ houses and in the second part the widow gives everything she has to live on. What if this story of the widow isn’t an example to emulate but instead a specific illustration of what it looks like when religious/political leaders devour widows?
At the same time there is a question here raised about charity: Do those of us who give, give our of our abundance? And if we do, does it actually do any good? This is a question that is for people with wealth and power. It’s a question about the system. When you give out of your abundance you aren’t actually changing anything. You might help the people who receive your gift, but the systems in place that keep people in poverty haven’t been changed. There is still a great disparity in wealth. For things to change the rich might have to give until it hurts so that the widow has enough to live on.
This is why some people of power, wealth, and privilege get so stressed when we talk about changing things; because they know that in order for everyone to have enough they might have to have less. For someone who has less, this is good news; this is the promise of all being fed and clothed, of everyone having the health care they need.
Are we one human family? Are we willing to have less so that everyone can have enough? Are we willing to take to account the people who hoard wealth and goods while others go without? I don’t want any widows to give until it hurts, but I do want the wealthy to do that. I don’t think Jesus is praising the widow in this passage, I think he is chiding the wealthy. He is bringing a critique on a system that has a widow giving all that she has while the powerful and wealthy do nothing to help.
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