Some times we think we know what is going on but we really don’t. We think we have the facts but we misunderstand what is actually taking place. I recently heard this story about the author, Arthur Miller, who was recognized by a school mate first as a fellow student and only later as the author.
This kind of thing happens all the time when it comes to reading the Bible. The basics of the Bible are clear. We are to love God and love people. Jesus died for our sins and rose again. But some of the stories are not always seen for what they are. It is not that we are completely mistaken, we just don’t have all the details.
That is the case when it comes to the story of the poor widow. This is a story that is quite familiar to church people. It is even common outside the church. I recently heard a podcaster cite this story when commenting on how a poor student was financially his podcast, even though he couldn’t give much. But what if there is another way to look at this? That is what we are going to explore.
At first this story seems to be quite straight forward. Jesus and his disciples are observing people giving to the temple treasury. This is money that is used to help with the upkeep of the temple. There are rich people putting a certain amount in the box and then a poor widow who is putting just a small amount in.
When looking at absolute numbers, the widows offering cannot even compare to what the rich are going. Imagine we were raising money for a building project here at the church. A local millionaire gave $5,000 to the fund and someone from Out of the Cold gave a dollar. When it comes to the actual building project, that dollar will not make any difference. In the same way, the two coins that the widow gave to the temple will not really help the upkeep at all.
But when it comes to percentage of income things are completely turned around. A rich person can give a fairly large sum and not feel the pinch at all. But this widow, even giving the little she had, was giving a large portion of what she had to live on. Giving this much may have caused her to miss a couple of meals.
My understanding of this is that Jesus was lifting up the widow as our example. Don’t be like the rich that give out of their abundance but be like the widow who gives sacrificially. She knew what it really meant to give because she couldn’t afford to give this amount and she did it. She is the hero of the story and what the church needs is more poor widows.
Now this story works on this level. I have known people who are not well off but who are far more generous than many rich people. I have heard story after story of poor people who have shared the little they had with others. It can be and should be incredibly inspiring. Hopefully this story will challenge us to be more generous. But what if that is not the point of the story?
I keep coming back to the importance of reading Bible passages in context. That includes the passages before and after but also reading in the context of the specific book of the Bible it is found in. What happens when we read this passage as a part of the Gospel of Luke?
Luke has a number of special interests but one of them is the theme of riches and poverty. This begins with the hymn of Mary before Jesus was born and keeps going right through the Gospel. Luke does much more than just observe that some people are rich and some people are poor. Luke uses the teachings of Jesus to criticize the circumstances in which the rich can take advantage of the poor. In this, Luke is following the path of the Old Testament. Care for the poor is not a minor theme in the Bible, it is foundational. The Bible, Old and New Testaments, speaks very strongly against the rich who take advantage of the poor. It is not just the rich who are condemned, it is the rich who because of their actions cause the poor to suffer.
This brings us to this passage. I was sure I understood this passage before but then I began to research it. The scholars I read observed that Jesus’ message in this story is not that the widow is good but rather that the rich were being bad. This story is one of a number in Luke, including the poor man and Lazarus, where the uncaring rich are judged. This is not a positive story praising the widow but a negative story criticizing the rich.
Think about it this way. The widow puts her two coins in the treasury and goes home to what? As a widow, she has very little opportunity to bring in money. We are not given her age and she may have had children at home. Where was her next meal going to come from? Were the rich temple donors going to drop off a casserole? Very unlikely. You see, we look at what the widow did and feel good about her generosity, but the system that requires her to give out of the little that she had. Would God really prefer that money be used for a new coat of paint or for the widow to eat? The problem in this story is a system that allows the rich to thrive and have their conscious massaged by some comfortable giving while the poor suffer terribly.
I would love to say that this was limited to Bible times but it is not. Christianity has long been attractive to the poor. While each poor person may not have much, if you get enough of them together, their little bit can be a lot. The leaders of the church, who were often richer, realized this and took advantage of this. Many of the huge and beautiful churches throughout Europe were paid for not by a few rich Christians but by thousands and thousands of poor Christians. We think of the Reformation about being primarily about theological differences but Martin Luther was outraged that rich leaders in the church were building magnificent churches in Rome by deceiving poor Christians in Germany. The poor were desperate for any hope, even if it was hope in the afterlife, and church leaders took advantage of it. This continues today. Who do you think pays for the mansions and private jets of televangelists? The majority of the money that comes in to televangelists come from the poor and not the rich. When the poor are desperate enough for any blessing, they will give the little they have.
This is what Jesus is addressing in this story of the poor widow. It is condemnation of the rich people who allow such a situation of the widow giving the little she had while they go home in comfort.
Let me bring this all together. This story is not a condemnation of all rich people. I know of many rich Christians who are extremely generous and who not only care for the poor, they do something about it. There are rich people in the Old and New Testaments who are praised and having money is not a sin.
This story is about condemning a system that allowed the rich to continue to prosper and the poor to continue to suffer. There was no reason for that widow to go home to empty cupboards without any money to feed herself or her family. The rich could have easily provided for the temple and provided for her.
The first challenge for us is to make sure that these corrupt systems are not in the church. We have seen it is very easy for them to creep into the church and rich Christians can become content with their riches. Jesus calls us to a better way. That is why in the sequel to Luke’s Gospel that we see a church where all goods are held in common and no Christian goes without. That doesn’t mean that we need to be communists, but does mean that we make sure we don’t have a broken system.
The second challenge is to look at the systems in our society. We do what we can to make sure people have a good meal and a warm place to sleep in the winter. But the poor need more than that. There are systems that help to keep people in poverty and we need to speak prophetically against them. We need to hold our elected officials accountable and force them to address issues of housing, addictions and mental illness. It can happen. Christians of previous generations dismantled the system of slavery, something that many rich Christians resisted. If that could be done, then we can make a difference in addressing poverty in our community.