That the widow's mite not
Was Jesus commending the widow or condemning the Pharisees? Phil Campbell takes another look at the “widow’s mite” in Mark 12:41-44
Source: Perspective Vo1 No3 ©Perspective 1999
“It’s for the new hall,” said old Mrs. Adams as she pressed the envelope into the minister’s hand after church.
As he felt the wad of banknotes through the crisp white sides of the envelope, he knew it was more than she could afford to give. But his heart was strangely warmed as he brought to mind a familiar tale – “Mark 12,” he murmured to himself. “The widow’s mite. Wonder why people call it that? What’s a mite anyway?”
Suddenly, the words of the hymn came flooding back to his mind. They sang it every Sunday. “Take my silver and my gold, Not a mite would I with-hold.” He smiled. At last someone was getting the idea. It doesn’t matter how much you give, as long as you give ’til it hurts. Here at last is Christianity in action when a widow like old Mrs. Adams gives up her life savings to help build the new church hall, things are looking good. Well, I know it’s dangerous to tamper with Bible stories that we all know and love. And few are better known and better loved than the tale we affectionately call “The Widow’s Mite.”
At the end of Mark 12, Jesus and his disciples are standing in the temple, watching as the worshippers deposit their cash in the temple treasury. The rich give large amounts, but the poor widow can only throw in two copper coins. “I tell you the truth,” says Jesus, “this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything – all she had to live on.”
Traditionally, of course, this little incident has been treated as the model for true Christian giving – “doesn’t matter how much you give,” we say, “as long as it’. from the heart”. “Doesn’t matter if you can’t give much,” we reassure one another – “it’s probably more than the rich folks are giving anyhow.” And in the case of old Mrs. Adams, “Doesn’t matter if she can’t afford to eat this week she’s doing the Lord’s will.”
And all of this may be perfectly true. But when we take a look at the context in Mark 12, it could be that Jesus is focussing on something else entirely. The widow’s story is told in verses 41 to 44. But what happens when we look at the verses immediately preceding?
In verses 38 to 40, Jesus warns the crowd about their religious leaders. “Watch out for the teachers of the law,” says Jesus. “They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted in the market places and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at banquets. They devour widows houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. Such men will be punished most severely.”
Is it just coincidence that these words lead us immediately into the story of the widow’s contribution to the temple funds? Or is Jesus drawing our attention to the widow’s plight as a living example of the words he has just spoken? Could it be that as Jesus speaks he is not so much praising the widow’s generosity as lamenting a religion that specialises in superb buildings and self important teachers of the law to the point where it happily devours a hungry widow?
It’s an uncomfortable thought, but could it be that God is not terribly impressed by such “capital intensive” forms of religion? Mrs Adams gave a generous sum – funny how it’s often those most in need who give most sacrificially. And that’s a delight to God. But at the same time, would He perhaps delight even more in a church that was giving to widows and orphans, rather than taking?
‘We’re very good at making exactly the same mistakes as the Teachers of the Law that Jesus so roundly condemns.
We’ve painted ourselves into a corner by building ourselves yet another capital intensive system of religion. Running an average church costs around $42,000 each year. A stipend, car allowance, a manse – and we’ve poured huge amounts of money into real estate and buildings. Did you hear about the church that’s trying to raise $700,000 to renovate their roof? They’ll need quite a few widows to pay for that! Trouble is, that’s the way it is. So what can we do about it?
Maybe it’s time to think a bit more creatively about church and ministry.
First, how about we encourage the rich to give more? As Jesus says, they can give out of their wealth if you’re rich, you’ve got plenty to spare. But of course, the other way to go is to loosen up our legislation. We’re tied down by all sorts of regulations – clergy, for example, can’t engage in other employment. If the church can’t afford to pay, you leave. There’s no place for “tent-making” ministries, which means there would have been no place for people like the Apostle Paul in the modern day Presbyterian Church. Remember what he said? In 1 Corinthians 9, he argues long and hard about his right as an apostle to receive their financial support. Then he says this… “But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ.” “What then is my reward?” asks Paul. “Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make use of my rights in preaching it.”
Paul had the freedom to give the gospel without taking. And the church met in local houses. Sure, he asked people to give – but it was always to help others who were in need. And that’s still what God calls us to do. “True religion,” says James, “is caring for widows and orphans”- not squeezing ’em for every last buck.
Phil Campbell leads the ministry team at Lower Clarence Presbyterian, Church. The new church hall, is very nice.