The widow’s offering: Scripture, justice, and honour and shame reversal

A fresh look at the widow’s offering

The widow’s offering in Luke 21:1–4 is well known for its example of sacrificial giving. The widow’s devotion to God is admirable, and her willingness to give out of her extreme poverty challenges all of us today.

But Luke 21:1–4 can hardly mean that every widow should give all she had to live on, given the fact that widows in the ancient world were among the poorest of the poor, and that the temple was an adorned and magnificent building (Mark 13:1; Luke 21:5). To ask a widow to give to the temple treasury is like asking a low-income person living with a disability to give away their disability payment to the church for a brand-new auditorium. It is also like requiring someone living below the poverty line to pay GST for basic food (e.g., bread, milk, rice, fruit, and vegetable).

It should be noted that Jesus did not ask other widows to “go and do likewise.” Instead, when Jesus said that the widow had put in more than all the others, he was probably saying that the gifts of the rich were in fact acts of religiosity that were incompatible with God’s requirement to stand in solidarity with the poor and marginalised. On the contrary, the widow was commendable because she did not allow her poverty to stop herself from loving God wholeheartedly. Let us look at the context of the passage.

The links to the previous three verses

The three verses before the widow’s offering, I think, are crucial.

In the hearing of all the people he said to the disciples, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 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.” (Luke 20:45–47; NRSV)

Here Jesus asked his disciples (in the hearing of all the people) to beware of the scribes—the experts of the Law of Moses and religious leaders in Jesus’s day.

It is easy to miss the connections between the widow’s offering (Luke 21:1–4) and the previous passage (20:45-47). It is because most English translations insert a heading at 21:1. But in the original Greek text there were no chapters or verses, let alone paragraph headings. The break between the two passages is artificial.

There are in fact many points of contact between 20:45–47 and 21:1–4.

First, the word “widow” is used in both passages (20:47; 21:2, 3). Second, in both places there is a reference to the livelihood of the widow—“houses” (20:47) and “all she had to live on” (21:4). Third, in both 20:45–47 and 21:1–4 the powerless are contrasted with the powerful—that is, the widow versus the scribes/the wealthy.

With these in mind, it is likely that the widow’s offering is in fact an illustration of Jesus’ teaching concerning the wealthy religious leaders.

Wealthy scribes versus a powerless widow

Jesus said that the scribes loved being greeted in the marketplaces and having the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at banquets (20:46). In antiquity these were the practices of the rich and powerful. In the words of New Testament scholar, Joel Green, the scribes “enjoyed being treated as persons of status, as though they were wealthy benefactors.”

Jesus rebuked these religious leaders and said that they devoured the widows’ houses. Indeed they would receive the harshest judgment (20:47). We don’t know how exactly they devoured widows’ houses. But the parable of the persistent widow in Luke 18 suggests that widows were subject to systemic injustice.

Without a husband representing them, widows—both in antiquity and in many parts of the world today—are among the most vulnerable in the society. They are defenceless and are often impoverished. But the Scripture says that the LORD loves them and he defends their cause (Deut 10:18). No wonder the Law demands Israel to look after and protect them (Exod 22:22; Deut 24:17–22). In fact, Moses says in Deuteronomy, “Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow.” (Deut 27:19a; NIV). It is, therefore, astonishing that the Scribes—the experts of the Mosaic Law!—should devour the widows’ houses.

It is in this context that Luke mentions the widow’s offering. The rich gave out of their abundance, but the widow gave to the temple treasury everything she had. Here, Jesus turns the prevailing social convention of honour and shame upside-down. The widow is honoured, but the rich are dishonoured.

The widow’s sacrificial giving demonstrates her devotion to God—something to be praised, although probably unnecessary in practical terms given the enormous size, beauty, and magnificence of the temple. Her devotion is commendable because she did not stop loving God despite her socioeconomic condition.

In light of the wealthy scribes’ oppression of the poor, it is not surprising that immediately afterwards Jesus announced the upcoming destruction of the temple (21:5–6). But the destruction of this religious centre had deeper reasons. In earlier passages Luke has spoken of the failure of the leaders in Jerusalem to understand God’s purpose and recognise Jesus as the Messiah (Luke 20:1–44, especially verses 41–44). The chief priests and the scribes failed to understand the Scriptures and put them into practice, and the widow’s offering served as a penetrating illustration of that.

The question we should ask ourselves as Christians in Australia is: Do we really understand the Scripture and the heart of God towards the poor, the vulnerable, and those who cannot fend for themselves?

Scripture, justice, and mercy

I belong to a Christian tradition that upholds in the authority of Scripture and the moral ideals of God. I have come to love the Bible and sought to live a life that is pleasing to God. But I have to admit that at times—though not always—we fail to care for the poor and defend the cause of the powerless, even though the Scripture demands us to do so.

At times I feel uncomfortable with the fact that some Christians do not think that our governments’ treatment of asylum seekers lack compassion, despite the Human Rights Commission’s damning report into children in immigration detention early this year. I am ashamed of the repeated cut in foreign aid since the current government came into office last year, bringing the level to one of the lowest on record. I am, therefore, disappointed that a Christian leader told me a couple of years ago that the domestic economy was more important than overseas aid, despite the affluent lifestyle of his church members. I am also very much aware of the injustice our country has done to Indigenous Australians when their land was taken from them. It seems that it is often unrecognised by my Christian friends.

Sometimes I wonder whether we are like the scribes who failed to understand the Scripture and hence God’s demand for justice and his love for the poor and needy? I wonder whether our churches are like the temple system in Jesus’ day, that we forget about the plight of the poor and the marginalised while we enjoy wonderful worship services and church programs? These questions are particularly poignant in light of Jesus’ judgment against the temple.

About ten years ago God led me and my family to a church in an inner-city suburb. It has been a blessed adventure. In our midst there are many asylum seekers and low-income people, and some of our members live with a disability. Their tenacity in adversity is an inspiration to us. Up until recently we had a wonderful Indigenous family. (They have now moved interstate.) They taught us about love and forgiveness despite the injustice they and their kindred experienced.

I am thankful for these wonderful people. They do not have many material possessions. But in them I see God’s handiwork, for they bring glory to God in their perseverance and trust in him. Like the widow in Luke 21:1–4, they love God despite their socioeconomic situation.

Although Luke paints a gloomy picture of the religious leaders of his day, in the Book of Acts (his second volume) he vividly depicts the amazing community of the disciples, whose solidarity with the poor can be found at the very conception of the church (Acts 2:42–47; 4:32–35). The challenge for us today, then, is to learn from this early Christian community and seek to be genuine disciples of Jesus. I think I have had a glimpse of that in my recent church experience, for which I am deeply thankful.

(I am indebted to Joel Green, The Gospel of Luke [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 1997], 72–78, for his insights on Luke 20:45—21:4.)

Financial giving, discipleship and power

I have to admit that I find Professor Joel Green’s reading of Luke’s Gospel exceptionally useful. In his The Theology of the Gospel of Luke (Cambridge: CUP, 1995), there is a really helpful analysis of discipleship and the kingdom of God in Luke. Here are some excerpts.

[E]conomic sharing was embedded in social relations. To share with someone without expectation of return was to treat them as though they were kin, family. Conversely, to refuse to share with others was tantamount to relating to them as though they were outside one’s community. (p. 114)

In such a context, “almsgiving” cannot be understood according to modern lexicons as “charity” or “missionary giving.” Rather, giving to the poor was a signifier of social relations with the poor. For this reasons, the Pharisees and scribes are soundly reprimanded for practise of non-sharing practices that give way to acts of greed and wickedness (11:39–41; 20:46-47) … (p. 114; emphasis added)

[I]n insisting that giving takes place in a context where one retains no expectation of return, Jesus strikes at the root of one of the most prevalent models of friendship in antiquity, the patron-client relationship. In this environment, a potential patron possessed some commodity required by a client. In exchange, the client would provide appropriate expressions of honor and loyalty to the patron. The point is that, having received patronage, the client now existed in a state of obligation, of debt. The possibilities for exploitation and the exercise of controlling, coercive power are high. (pp. 114–5)

In each case, those whose goodness grows out of the system of patronage — give to those who give to you, in order to build up a series of claims over others — are said to be no better than sinners. Jesus thus challenges his listeners not to act like outsiders, but like God’s people. In doing so, he urges them to refuse the coercive, control-dominated system of relationships characteristic of the wider world. (p. 115)

Luke’s material on the rich and poor, then, is woven into a larger fabric than talk of money and treasure might at first suggest. Wealth is intricately spun together with issues of status, power, and social privilege. For this reason it cannot remain long outside the purview of the gospel. Entry into the way of discipleship raises immediately the question of possessions, with Luke calling for an economic redistribution in which the needy are cared for and the wealthy give without expectation of return. (pp. 116–7; emphasis added)

The message of Jesus in Luke violates the sacred political order of the Roman world. What is more, it does so on the basis of a clash of kings and kingdoms. Luke has consistently presented Jesus as Son of God, God’s own agent, whose life and message embodies God’s own purpose. (pp. 120–1)

The new community being established by Jesus is thus counter-cultural in the deepest sense. Their practices as a community, if they are to follow Jesus, would deviate radically from the Roman ethic and disavow its divine origin. Importantly, this denunciation of Rome is not characterized by violence, according to Luke’s theology. To take up arms, to exert coercive force, would be to adopt a style of life consistent with the Roman way, not with the way of this new kingdom breaking into the world. (p. 121)

Joel Green theology of Luke

The call to discipleship as an invitation to align ourselves with Jesus

I think that discipleship is more profound and down-to-earth than we think. If we believe that we are followers of Jesus, we must take discipleship seriously.

Here are some quotes regarding Luke’s view of discipleship from Joel B. Green’s The Gospel of Luke. NICNT. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997. They are excellent!

For Luke, then, the call to discipleship is fundamentally an invitation for persons to align themselves with Jesus, and thus with God. (p. 23)

Genuine “children of Abraham” are those who embody in their lives the beneficence of God, and who express openhanded mercy to others, especially toward those in need. (p. 23)

Jesus thus calls on people to live as he lives, in contradistinction to the agonistic, competitive form of life marked by conventional notions of honor and status typical of the larger Roman world. Behaviors that grow out of service in the kingdom of God take a different turn: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Extend hospitality to those who cannot reciprocate. Give without expectation for return. Such practices are possible only for those whose dispositions, whose convictions and commitments, have been reshaped by transformative encounter with the goodness of God. Within the Third Gospel, the chief competitor for this focus stems from Money–not so much money itself, but the rule of Money, manifest in the derive for social praise and, so, in forms of life designed to keep those with power and privilege segregated from those of low status, the lest, the lost, and the left-out. (p. 24)

Joel Green on “salvation” in Luke

I just read this excellent summary of Luke’s view of salvation in Joel B. Green’s The Gospel of Luke. NICNT. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997. Take a look!

Salvation is neither ethereal nor merely future, but embraces life in the present, restoring the integrity of human life, revitalizing human communities, setting the cosmos in order, and commissioning the community of God’s people to put God’s grace into practice among themselves and toward ever-widening circles of others. Their Third Evangelist [i.e. the author of Luke’s Gospel] knows nothing of such dichotomies as those sometimes drawn between social and spiritual or individual and communal. Salvation embraces the totality of embodied life, including its social, economic, and political concerns. For Luke, the God of Israel is the Great Benefactor whose redemptive purpose is manifest in the career of Jesus, whose message is that this benefaction enables and inspires new ways for living in the world. (pp. 24–25)

Meal scenes in Luke’s Gospel and their power to transform our lives (and more!)

I read an article entitled “A Sinner and a Pharisee: Challenge at Simon’s Table in Luke 7:36–50” by Kylie Crabbe in Pacifica 24 (2011), 247–266. I like this article and have learned a lot from it.

Luke 7:36–50 is about Jesus’ conversation with Simon the Pharisee at his house. In this meal scene the anointing of Jesus by a sinful woman with perfume takes centre stage. Here I will cite a few things from the early part of the article.

Overlapping connections between these [meal] scenes suggest the following common elements for meal encounters: Jesus’ presence at a meal; a crowd or chorus; an action that prompts discussion’ an opponent; and an unexpected revelation (cf. 5:27–32; 7:36–50; 9:10–17; 10:38–42; 11:37–52; 14:1–24; 19:1–10). (p. 250; emphasis added)

Such experience [of encountering the events and meal scenes in Luke by the reader] is inevitably transformative but, as the meals reveal, also costly. In Lukan meal scenes, I suggest, the threshold moment places characters in the doorway to an experience of eschatological significance, made available through meal fellowship with Jesus. In so doing, the meals invitation before all who encounter Jesus. (p. 250)

The meals also shed light on the character of the kingdom Jesus proclaims. This is a kingdom not only described in the central themes of abundance and feasting, but also in reversal (13:28–29; 14:11, 23–24; 22:24–27). Its unconventional priorities, demonstrated at table with Jesus, cause some characters to verge on rejecting the acceptance that they have been offered. Indeed, as they embody the broader themes from across the Gospel, meals also underline the developing tragedy that the one who has proclaimed the Lord’s acceptance is himself ultimately rejected. (p. 251; emphasis original)

Finally, these meals become proleptic experiences of the kingdom by their nature as intimate encounters of koinônia at table with the one who is messianically anointed and empowered by the Spirit (4:1, 18). As Smith acknowledges, in these meals, Jesus “somehow symbolized in his person the presence of the Kingdom”. [from D. E. Smith, From Symposium to Eucharist, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003, 234.] The question before fellow diners, foreshadowed in Jesus’ sayings and drawn out by meal scenes, is who can respond to such an encounter with unreserved participation. (p. 251)

So, here we are. Meal scenes in Luke have transforming power. But at the same time they can be costly. The readers—both then and now—are invited to participate in Jesus’ mission without reservation.