One of the most famous stories about Jesus is about him and his disciples watching people come to the Temple to give money. The rich people are tossing in lots, and then a poor widow comes and gives “two mites,” which are, as Jesus notes, “all she had to live on.”
Preachers often interpret the story of the widow’s mite, as this scene is called, as one about the generosity of the poor widow who gives proportionately more to the Temple than the wealthy — they give a lot out of their wealth, but she gives all she has. That interpretation has made for countless poignant sermons, but every sermon I’ve ever heard on it misses the point. Jesus is not just praising the widow’s financial generosity; he’s damning the financial corruption of the religious system.
By the time this story happens in the gospels of Mark and Luke, Jesus has already established his views on the corrupt nature of the religious system in Jerusalem. Just a few moments before, he scolded religious leaders for devouring widows’ houses in order to maintain their social status. Now he watches a widow get devoured — she is giving everything to a religious institution that he has already shown is not worthy of her. (A few moments later, he tells his disciples that the temple is going to be torn apart.)
Instead of compelling the poor to give to our ministries, perhaps we should compel our ministries to live lean.
The widow’s heart is in the right place, but Jesus is not just trying to highlight her heart. He’s telling his disciples that what they’re watching is tragic. The widow is being obedient to an unjust system that deserves to be destroyed.
This is not a heartwarming story of a generous giver; this is a heartbreaking story of exploitation.
Most of us understand innately that it is insulting to praise a poor person for giving generously to a wealthy institution at the cost of personal injury. Last April in Atlanta, it was reported that Archbishop Wilton Gregory built a $2.2M mansion with money donated by members of the parish to support the ministries of the church. We hear that news, and we automatically feel that a wrong has been committed. We don’t praise the people who gave to support the exorbitant mansion; we critique the leaders who misused the gifts. We know that the poor should not be compelled to sacrifice their livelihood to maintain a corrupt system, particularly a corrupt religious system.
But it’s hard for people who run churches to read the story of the widow’s mite rightly. Most of us feel stressed about money. We have budgets to meet, salaries to pay, ministries to fund, denominations to support, and service to do. That all requires money. Money requires funders. We need people to generously donate to our churches; we need people to feel compelled to give. Thus we close our eyes to our institutional problems and focus on the individual giver in hopes that we will continue to have a livelihood.
But what if church leaders read the story of the widow’s mite as a critique of our approach to religious funding?
Instead of focusing on the widow, focus on the whole scene Jesus and his disciples were looking at. They were not just watching one widow, but a whole garish Temple lined with donation stations. That image is disgusting to us, and that’s a good thing. We are disgusted by the largesse of our facilities. We are disgusted that when we visit the elderly in our congregations and see their humble lifestyle, we then have to turn around and ask for money. We are disgusted that we make our wage on the backs of the poor. We are disgusted that we are better paid than most of the people we serve.
Pastors of all people should understand Jesus’ frustration with the religious system, because we share in it daily.
All this disgust has the power to link up to a revised interpretation of the widow’s mite and help us begin to correct the way our congregations approach money. Instead of focusing on the individual giver, perhaps we should focus on simplifying our institutions. Instead of compelling the poor to give to our ministries, perhaps we should compel our ministries to live lean.
There is, after all, something wonderful about giving generously to a noble cause, so church leaders should work on making congregations a cause worthy of people’s generosity. That seems like a much more valuable lesson from the poor widow.
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