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Jesus and the Widow's Offering (Mark 12:41-44)

Analysis and Commentary

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Jesus and the Widow's Offering

Jesus and the Widow's Offering

    41 And Jesus sat over against the treasury, and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury: and many that were rich cast in much. 42 And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing. 43 And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury: 44 For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.
    Compare: Luke 21:1-4

Jesus and Sacrifice

This incident with the widow making an offering in the Temple is directly connected with the previous passage where Jesus condemns those scribes who exploit widows. Whereas the scribes came in for criticism, though, this widow is praised. Or is she?

Mark presents us here with a widow (“destitute” may be a better translation than simply “poor”) making an offering in the Temple. Rich people make a great show of giving large amounts while this woman gives only a tiny sum of money — all she has, probably. Who has given more?

Jesus argues that the widow has given the most because while the rich have only given from their surplus, and thus have not sacrificed anything to God, the widow has indeed sacrificed greatly. She has given “even all her living,” suggesting that she may now not have money for food.

The purpose of the passage appears to be to explain what “true” discipleship for Jesus was: being willing to give everything you have, even your livelihood, for the sake of God. Those who merely contribute from their own surplus aren’t sacrificing anything, and therefore their contributions will not be considered much (or at all) by God. Which of the two do you suppose is most descriptive of the average Christian in America or the West generally today?

This incident is connected to more than just the previous passage criticizing the scribes. It parallels the coming passages where Jesus is anointed by a woman giving all she has, and it is similar to how the discipleship of other women will be described later on.

It is worth noting, though, that at no point does Jesus explicitly praise the widow for what she has done. It is true that her donation is worth more than the donations of the rich, but he doesn’t say that she is a better person because of it. After all, her “living” has now been consumed by her offering to the Temple, but in verse 40 he condemned the scribes for devouring widow’s “houses.” What’s the difference?

Perhaps the passage is not meant so much as praise for those who give everything but a further condemnation of the rich and powerful. They direct institutions in a manner that allows them to live well while the rest of society is exploited to keep those institutions running — institutions which, in theory, should exist to *help the poor, not consume what few resources they have.

The actions of the destitute widow thus are perhaps not being praised, but lamented. This, however, would turn around the traditional Christian interpretation and lead to an implied criticism of God. If we are to lament the widow for having to give everything she has in order to serve the Temple, then shouldn’t we lament the faithful Christians who have to give everything they have to serve God?

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