The gospel lectionary today is the story which has often been termed “The Widow’s Mite” (12;38-44). It is the tale of a widow who made a monetary offering at the temple. She put in two coins which, the story comments, was all she had.
This story is often used to illustrate sacrificial giving and generosity. Indeed, generosity is one of the values of the community.
Therefore, I don’t want to detract from this old and valid way of interpreting this passage as an example of generosity. Although I deplore the way this text has sometimes been used to make people feel guilty about not giving enough.
So, as I read this passage, I want to ask myself what else is in this text? Is there a way to subvert or re-imagine it? Can it be re-claimed in a different way?
I do think that sacred scriptures can be understood at many levels. Often there is not just one “correct” interpretation. It is far more nuanced than that. I also believe that the gospels are not necessarily chronological —although most start with a birth and end with a death. I think that the stories are carefully placed to make and illustrate points.
As I read this story, I also want to keep in mind that in contemporary times the widows would now represent those who are needy, lonely, marginalized and poverty stricken.
In context this story immediately follows the command to love one’s neighbour, emphasizing that this is more important than offerings. Could it be that the author placed this story to illustrate loving neighbour?
At the beginning of today’s passage the people listening were instructed not to be like scribes who walk around in long robes. “They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearances say long prayers” (40).
I find the link here with widows significant. In the story, Jesus took the disciples and sat and watched people go into the treasury. The treasury is in the court of women. It consists of thirteen brass receptacles shaped like trumpets. People placed their offerings in them. Nine of them were for money tributes, for example sin offerings. Four were to receive freewill offerings used to buy wood, temple adornments and incense.
They watched the widow come in and put in her two coins. It was all she had to live on. The offering had forced her to even deeper poverty. I have a hard time thinking this is something that Jesus would applaud. It does not feel in line with the message of the gospels to care for those in need. Something not quite right here.
Furthermore, the two alternate Old Testament lectionary readings both, in different ways, established a duty of care not to let widows starve. Therefore, an offering of two coins which would leave the widow without, does not feel in tune with the message of the scriptures. Was this an example of “devouring widows’ houses”?
As I read the passage I wonder if it is passing comment on a religious society that did not care if widows were left to starve. The shame of the system is exposed —a widow harmed by her offering.
Last week at the retreat our conversation was about a new kind of priesthood. One that is present to those around. One that serves and cares. One that, metaphorically speaking, doesn’t leave widows to starve.