The Widow’s Penny
“I tell you, this widow put more into the offering box than all the others,” Jesus (Mark 12:43)
It is important to note the context for today’s lectionary reading from the Gospel.
Jesus is in Jerusalem and walking around the temple precints, the place where the Jews worship God through the killing of animals, and the rituals of prayer.
But everywhere Jesus goes, he meets the establishment scribes, or lawyers,
who taunt him with questions and challenge his religious credentials.
Scribes or lawyers were the establishment people of their day.
They were educated, well-off, and socially respected.
You would not hesitate inviting one of them to your party or fund-raising event.
But Jesus had problems with them, long standing problems.
He could not trust them.
There is even one legend that it was the lawyers who took away his mother Mary’s house after his father, Joseph died, forcing Jesus’ family to become dependent on their relatives.
It would certainly explain why Jesus seldom if ever spoke kindly of the scribes.
Jesus despised them not only for their unscrupulous financial dealings, but for their religious pomposity.
In the mind of Jesus, they were the great hypocrites of the day.
Jesus wanted to warn his disciples about getting involved with the scribes, so he called them together for a class in non-verbal behavior. Here is how Mark described that class:
As he taught them, he said, “Watch out for the teachers of the Law, who like to walk around in their long robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplace, who choose the reserved seats in the synagogues and the best places at feasts. They take advantage of widows and rob them of their homes, and then make a show of saying long prayers. Their punishment will be all the worse.” (Mark 12:38-40).
Jesus points out four ways the teachers of the law give themselves away as members of the religious and social establishment.
1. By their physical appearance. They walk around in expensive, custom-made clothes and robes. Nothing shabby here.
2. By insisting on proper and formal greetings. Not “Mister Scribe,” but “Sir.”
3. By making advance reservations of the best seats in the synagogue. So they will see everybody, and everybody will see them.
4. By reserving the best couches at banquets and fund-raisers. They don’t want to miss a thing.
These were the social indicators that set the scribes apart from the crowds of ordinary people.
They were beautiful people, beautifully dressed, in beautiful box seats.
But Jesus saw something hypocritical underneath their external appearance.
You expect beautiful people to have beautiful morals and ethics.
But that is precisely what Jesus found missing among the scribes: morals to match their manners.
It is these beautifully dressed scribes that take financial advantage of widows—those still grieving the loss of their husbands.
Maybe the bereaved families had been left with unpaid taxes, but to throw them out of their homes is unforgivable. But that did not bother these lawyers.
Worse still, these unscrupulous scribes celebrate their success in driving widows out of their homes, with long prayers to the same God.
How hypocritical! How can God listen to such prayers?
This angers Jesus, and he pronounces the scribes deserve stiff punishments.
After this warning about the scribes,
Jesus moves his class to another corner of the temple in Jerusalem.
There is something else Jesus wants them to observe: the rituals of paying the temple dues.
He takes up a position near one of the pillars of the temple, and makes astute observations of the parade of people who come to pay their temple dues.
In the time of Jesus, there were 13 treasury boxes placed around the temple for people to put in their money.
The treasury, then as now, needed a constant flow of cash to support the many temple sacrifices, and the daily worship.
Jesus knew you could not run the temple without cash.
So he brought the disciples to one of these 13 treasury boxes, to show them what he sees.
Again, it was a lesson in how to distinguish the poor donors from the wealthy, and how to understand their patterns of giving.
Jesus recognized the wealthy by their beautiful clothes, and by how long they took to make their contributions. They wanted to be sure everyone saw them make their donation.
It was a good collection day; there were plenty of good people who supported the work of God in the temple.
Then Jesus observed someone make a donation that put a smile on his face. It was a widow dropping in two small coins, a mere pittance.
Jesus pointed her out to his disciples. He did not want them to miss what he saw.
Jesus did not need to talk to the woman.
He recognized her poverty and her marital status as widow, probably from the clothes she was wearing, and from how little money she deposited.
Nor did the widow hide how much, or how little, she gave.
It was only two mites, or a penny’s worth.
It took 80 pennies in her day to buy a loaf of bread, a little less than it costs now.
So she gave enough to buy a slice of bread, not even the whole loaf.
But Jesus saw beyond the tally.
Jesus saw not only the two pennies the widow gave, but he also saw what the two pennies meant to the woman: it was her entire day’s shopping money.
She gave all the change she had for the day, and she had nothing left over for a bowl of soup.
She gave to the work of God in the temple everything she had saved, her entire livelihood!
In this awesome gesture, Jesus saw something marvelous, and he did not want the disciples to miss it either.
We don’t know the spiritual motivation behind the gift,
but we know Jesus saw something monumental in the gesture.
This was the spiritual lesson Jesus wanted his disciples to remember:
The widow gave all she had, the wealthy give only a portion.
Hence the poor woman gave more, relatively speaking, than the rich men in their fine costumes.
Someone who feels the pinch when they give, in the mind of Jesus, gives more than someone who doesn’t feel anything.
This is the spiritual meaning of this story of the widow’s penny.
Throughout the ages, the poor have found great comfort in this story,
in knowing that the small amounts they give to the big treasury of the temple or church, is noticed by God.
Today is Remembrance Sunday, when we remember those who gave 100% of their lives for the cause of freedom and democracy.
Together, those who lived and those who died in the war, saved the Western world from being overrun by Nazism, and for that we are forever grateful.
The death of a single soldier may not sound like much when we tally up the millions who died, but to the soldier, and to his family, it was a total sacrifice.
It was their entire life that was cut short for the cause of freedom,
and for the cause of liberty in their home country.
Like the woman who gave her two small pennies, but received the praise of Jesus, so our soldiers who fought and who gave their lives, should receive the ongoing praise of Canadians, for their duty to God and country.
For this, we are grateful.