Thinking about the Poor Widow’s Offering

Worship Study Prayer

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Mark 12:41-44

 The Widow’s Offering

     41 Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. 42 But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny.

     43 Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others.44 They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

This story is pretty well known – a poor widow gives a tiny offering while rich people give “large amounts.” And Jesus praises the offering of the widow. A quick reading gives us the “surface meaning” of the passage, which is that God is pleased even with the small offerings of the poor. And especially with offerings that are sacrificial in nature – offerings that represent a real hardship for the giver.

But it seems to me there’s more to the story than that — including some other things that are easy to miss unless you look closely.

First of all, I think we’re meant to notice that in the passage, Jesus actually sits down to watch people giving their offerings. It’s not that he just ‘happened by’ and noticed what was happening. The way the story is told, Jesus deliberately sits down to watch these offerings – and it’s during the last week of his earthly ministry, so presumably Jesus wasn’t wasting his time with idle pursuits that week. It seems like everything he was doing was deliberate and with a purpose. There’s a special kind of resonance to the things Jesus did and said during those last few days. All those things seem to be intended as a kind of wrapping-up of the most important teachings of his time on earth.

So this story should eliminate any doubt we might have about whether the way we use our money matters to God. Scholars who study both the Old and the New Testaments say the scriptures consistently make the point that what we do with our material resources is regarded by God as an important indicator of our spiritual health.

And I can’t help noticing that in this story, Jesus doesn’t criticize the rich who give the large amounts. There’s another story in which Jesus criticizes wealthy people who loudly announce their giving, but that’s not what this passage is about.

As we said a minute ago, it seems that what distinguishes the poor widow’s offering is its sacrificial nature. As far as we know, maybe the rich people gave sacrificially, too. We don’t know. What we do know is that this lady gave all she had. She gave, as the saying goes, until it hurt. And for that act of sacrificial devotion, Jesus honors her humble offering.

It seems to me that it means something that the woman is a widow, too. Widows and orphans were the most vulnerable people in that culture. So in those circumstances, her giving was an even greater act of faith. By giving all she had, the widow was expressing enormous confidence in God to provide for her needs.

One thing about this story always makes me a little nervous. It’s easy for those of us who are in comfortable circumstances to romanticize poverty – to think of poverty as somehow ‘ennobling.’ (Think of what fine and noble people Bob Cratchit’s family are in A Christmas Carol. Tiny Tim is practically a saint.) And it’s a short step from romanticizing poverty to thinking that it’s actually some kind of blessing. And once you get there, it’s easy to tell ourselves that it’s not important for us to do anything about it.

But I don’t think Jesus would want us to take this story as “getting us off the hook” in helping the poor. This story probably calls on us to give sacrificially, too – to give sacrificially to the relief of poverty. Maybe it’s even an ingenious story to guard against “compassion fatigue” on our part, since what we can give might seem like just a couple of pennies against the vast needs of the poor.

But there might even be another lesson to be drawn from this story. Sometimes in the teachings of Jesus, financial resources – money – is used to represent our spiritual gifts. Most of us feel like we’re not really that ‘gifted’ in terms of service to the kingdom of God. But this passage might also be intended to make the point that however modest we might think our spiritual gifts are, what matters is how willingly we offer them in God’s service. The quiet service of a humble person of faith might be received just as joyfully by God as the sermons of the most famous preachers or the solos of the most talented singers.

Ultimately, the real point Jesus might want us to take away from this story is that whatever we have, whether it’s time, talent or treasure, God receives it joyfully when we offer it sacrificially to the service of his kingdom.

Let’s pray. Lord, we thank you for the rich blessings you give us each day. Whatever those gifts might be, make us more and more willing to give them sacrificially and joyfully, knowing that you receive them as gifts of your loving children, and that you will always provide for our needs. Amen.

Have a great weekend, and worship God joyfully on Sunday!


(The other readings for today are Psalms 130 and 139; II Samuel 19:24-43; and Acts 24:24-25:12.)

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