Our gospel lesson is the story of the widow’s mite. This story always reminds me of the seventeenth-century metaphysical poet Richard Crenshaw’s poem based on this passage:
Two mites, two drops, yet all her house and land,
Fall from a steady heart, though trembling hand:
The other’s wanton wealth foams high, and brave;
The other cast away, she only gave.“The Widow’s Mite” by Richard Crenshaw
It’s a simple story about two people who gave something to God, and it opens with Jesus sitting opposite the Temple treasury. As I thought about this passage and what it means to us today, I kept picturing him sitting there, just ‘people watching.’
As we think about this story, it makes more sense if we understand the Temple. Knowing more about the scene makes it easier to climb inside this passage and appreciate what it says, not just about the widow, but about giving, generosity, God, and us. The Temple was a complex of buildings. But it was more than that. It symbolized God’s presence among the people. For the people in Jesus’ day, seeing the Temple reminded them of God’s promises.
As an itinerant rabbi, Jesus visited the Temple, and according to the gospels, he taught there daily during his last days in Jerusalem. While ‘people watching,’ he witnessed the way they lived out their faith. Some did it for show. Others let their lives reflect an inner change or presence of something divine.
When you picture Jesus sitting opposite the Temple treasury, he was probably in Solomon’s portico. The whole Temple complex had gates and chambers, and there were altars and slaughter tables for animal offerings. The most important religious spaces were the priests’ rooms and the Holy of Holies.
Just outside was the priest’s court, and through a gate, there was the women’s court. Everyone was allowed in the women’s court. Jesus could have gone in there with his disciples, and as an adult male, he would have been allowed in the priest’s court too. Instead, he seemed to prefer spending time in the Gentile’s court. This was just outside the women’s court.
Along the eastern wall of the Gentile’s court was Solomon’s portico. When the gospels refer to Jesus teaching or doing other things in the Temple, this is probably where he was. His disciples probably continued his tradition of teaching in Solomon’s portico. Acts 3.11 and 5.12 refer to people gathering around the Apostles in Solomon’s portico.
Just in front of where he sat was an immense gate leading to the Court of Women. That’s where there were 13 collection boxes. From this vantage point, he could see the people who put their money in the collection boxes.
So here we find him, sitting and people watching. He saw rich people put in large sums. And, he saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He turned to his disciples and said, “The truth is that this poor widow gave more to the collection than all the others put together. All the others gave what they’ll never miss; she gave extravagantly what she couldn’t afford—she gave her all.”
It’s easy to read this passage and jump from Jesus critiquing ostentatious religion to the widow’s display of faithful sacrifice. That’s a great message. Don’t be flashy or affected. Don’t do things just for show. We’ve got to be careful with that message, though. Depending on how we say it, It can sound like a critique of any wealth or generosity. We have some incredibly generous people in this church. Without fail, when they exercise heroic generosity, they say, “Please keep this anonymous.” I respect that, and they clearly are following Jesus’ teaching against pretentious giving.
Jesus also has a great message about faithful sacrifice. The poor widow gave her all. True, earnest giving reflects what’s inside and Jesus celebrates sincere responses. However, we need to exercise some caution when we call people to sacrificial giving, just like we need to be cautious with our critique of generosity. Reading this story at a surface level would make it easy to condemn someone too quickly and celebrate someone else. We could do both without knowing the entire story.
Of course, Jesus warns against hypocrisy and overly pious behavior. Hypocrites make it easy to let ourselves off the hook. When we have a hypocrite or a Pharisee, we can excuse ourselves without analyzing our behavior. When there’s a baddie, we get to feel like the good ones. Jesus watches the rich people put in large sums, and we look with him, expecting him to say, “Look how they gave what they will never miss.”
We can nod and say, “That’s right, Jesus. You call those hypocrites out.”
We can turn his critique back on ourselves. What are we giving that we will never miss?
Then, there’s the issue of celebrating the huge sacrifice the poor widow makes. Recall the lack of a social safety net in first-century Palestine. That woman had no options and no possibilities. When we raise up this kind of sacrifice too quickly, we can call people to give what they cannot afford. How many televangelists have demanded their followers send money whether they can afford it or not?
When anyone other than God leads someone to make a sacrifice, we can be rightly suspicious. Too often, we ask those with the least and who are the most vulnerable to give the most. We celebrate sacrifice. That poor widow is the hero of this story. I’ll bet she would prefer food stability and a place to live. If she could conceive of it, she would most likely rather safety and security over being the hero for giving what she could not afford to give. She had her reasons and we don’t know them.
Sacrifice comes from the Latin sacrificium which combines the words for holy or sacred and to make. Literally, it means “to make something holy.” Yet, when we speak of sacrifice today, we don’t emphasize something that is an act of worship or devotion. Today, the most common usage means “the act of giving up something that you want to keep to get or do something else or help someone.”
The best sacrifices are those someone else makes. I can look at the picture of Mother Teresa on the wall of my study and find inspiration in her life-giving work. We talk about her giving, not ours. We say, “Isn’t she amazing?” instead of saying, “What is God calling me to give or do?” When I think about the way she gave of herself, I cannot imagine doing what she did. The thing is: she couldn’t imagine doing what I (or you) do. She once said, “I can do things you cannot. You can do things I cannot. Together, we can do great things.”
Mother Teresa moved the focus off her sacrifice and put it on the kingdom of God.
The widow wasn’t just following an empty ritual. She walked up to the treasury box and gave herself to God.
Heroic generosity is not always about the money. It’s about Jesus—who he is and what he’s done. Heroic generosity is hearing him call us to make something holy. Each one of us has a talent, and we can give it to God.
Think about yourself for a minute. Think about all the things you’re good at. Think about your resources or, even, things around the house. Of everything that makes you into who you are, what do you give to God from your excess? And, what do you give with reckless abandon? Answering these questions leads us to our place in the story of the widow’s mite.
 John J. Rousseau and Rami Arav, Jesus and His World, an Archealogical and Cultural Dictionary (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995), 304.