This morning’s gospel reading included the famous account of the “widow’s mite”: a text which has been much sentimentalised, not to mentioned used to manipulate and guilt-trip Christians (“See how Jesus commends this widow!” *wipe tear from eye* “And what do you think he’d say about how much you’re dropping into the collection plate?”).
In context, the story comes across very differently. Here’s Mark 12:38-13:2:
As he taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’
As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’
In that context, it’s pretty clear that Jesus isn’t commending the widow as a role model for self-sacrificial giving. Rather, he’s holding her up as a victim of the exploitation of the poor by a religious establishment that “devour[s] widows’ houses”, and whose greatest achievement – the Jerusalem temple – was under God’s judgment and doomed to utter destruction.
In other words, we’re not meant to read Jesus’ words with a warm sentimental glow that makes us dig a little deeper – but not too deep, eh? – into our own pockets. Rather, we should share his mixture of anger and sorrow at any religious-political system that would leave a widow with virtually nothing to live on – and then extract even that from her for its own purposes.
Note: for more on this, see this post by Jeff Meyers.