THINKING BIBLICALLY ABOUT GOD
THE WIDOWS LAST MITE UNDERSTOOD IN CONTEXT
The story of the widow’s last mite has widely been misunderstood as being an example of Christian giving. It’s frequently used to guilt Christians into giving to their church even if they are in poverty. However, the story of the widow’s last mite is not a story about giving. It’s a sad story about the Jewish religious leaders conning poor widows of their livelihoods.
The story appears in both the gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Luke. In each appearance of the story Jesus had been in the midst of rebuking the Pharisees for devouring widows houses and making long sanctimonious prayers while doing so.
While all the people were listening, Jesus said to his disciples, “Beware of the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.” Luke 20:35-47
Although the story of the widows mite appears only in Mark and Luke, the devouring of widows homes is mentioned in all three synoptic gospels (Matthew 23:14, Mark 12:40 and Luke 20:47). Mark and Luke say that they will be punished most severely because of it and Matthew says that they will not escape the damnation of hell. Jesus used incredibly strong words in his rebuke to the Pharisees.
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye devour widows’ houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation. Matthew 23:14
Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell? Matthew 23:33
What’s fascinating is that immediately following this, in all three synoptic gospels, Jesus begins to prophecy the complete and utter destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple. It’s in this context that Mark and Luke present the story of the widow’s last mite. They both squeeze the story in-between Christ’s condemnation of the Pharisees and his prophecy about the destruction of the Jewish Temple and the City of Jerusalem. This is something that the prosperity preachers will never tell you. With that in mind let’s look at the story of the widow’s last mite.
As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” Luke 21:4
Notice that she put in everything that she had to live on. There was nothing left for food, for clothing, for anything! Is that what these pastors are asking people to do today? While they live in luxury? How is that different to the Pharisees devouring widow’s houses? If Jesus condemned the Pharisees for devouring widow’s houses and pronounced damnation upon them and destruction upon Jerusalem for doing so, then wouldn’t he be equally angered at today’s religious leaders for doing the exact same thing? New Testament Scholar Dr Craig Evans agrees and makes the following statement in his Commentary on Luke.
He (Jesus) saw in the episode an illustration of what he had said earlier in 20:46–47. In other words, because of the teaching of the religious authorities of her day, the poor widow gives up her last penny and so is victimized for the sake of an oppressive religious system. Her wealth, or what little wealth there was, was “devoured” (see v. 47). Jesus’ statement in 21:4, therefore, is not one of praise, but one of lament. It may be because of this great economic injustice that Luke is satisfied to have this episode immediately precede Jesus’ prediction of the temple’s destruction. Evans, Craig A. Evans. Luke (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series)
As Christians, we should not be teaching these kinds of lies or deceit. When we look at the teaching of the Apostles in the New Testament we see something very different to what the Pharisees were teaching. In the corrupt Temple system the religious leaders took money from widows, but in the church the believers looked after the widows (Acts 6:1-6, 1 Timothy 5:3, James 1:27). James tells us that true religion is to visit the fatherless and the widow in their time of need. Paul exhorted the church to honour widows with financial aid just as surely, and in the same chapter, that he exhorted the church to honour church elders with financial support.
Sadly, preachers and so called bible teachers are all too frequently using this verse as a passage about Christian giving, when in reality it’s about religious abuse and divine judgement upon false teachers.