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.)