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.)

Reflections on this year’s teaching at theological colleges

This academic year I had the privilege of teaching the Bible in theological colleges. Although I was a guest lecturer at several institutions for many years, my focus was on social justice and poverty, and what the Bible had to say on those matter. This past year, however, was different. I taught full-semester units on biblical interpretation and the New Testament. I had plenty of fun in class. I also had to grade many essays and assignments.

I benefited greatly from the students. They were wonderful. At the same time, since my students came from a wide range of churches, I also learned something about how the Bible had been used by Christians in recent years  (in Australia).

In the following I will outline my observations. (Of course, these observations are by no means objective, and they are based on my interactions with a relatively small number of students.) I will start with some worrying trends, and then highlight several encouraging signs.

Worrying trends

First, some students shared with me that they were hurt or discouraged by how the Bible had been used and taught. It is sad to hear that the Scripture has been misused as an instrument of condemnation, rather than an expression of God’s profound grace. Yes, the Bible does speak of God’s judgment, but we must bear in mind that the goal of judgment is restoration. When we fail to embody God’s love and grace in the way we use the Scripture, we discourage people from reading the Bible itself.

Second, studying the Bible is no longer widely practised. Most of my students do believe that the Bible is authoritative. And many of them have grown up in Christian families and have been attending churches all their lives, although some of them are fairly new Christians. I have come to realise that a large number of them go to churches that do not regularly study the Bible. They do go to small groups and they do discuss the Bible. But they do not study it. In their small groups they may discuss materials written by some famous Christian leaders. They may do topical studies on certain themes in the Bible. But they do not regularly study the Scripture book by book in detail. That is, there is no longer an emphasis on carefully reading the biblical text within its context. I am not suggesting that studying the Bible should be the only thing we do when we gather together. But I am concerned that local churches no longer see it as a very important thing to do. Christians are taught and told what the Bible says, but they are not encouraged to study it themselves within their own Christian communities. The result is that Christians lack the skill and experience to discern what is healthy biblical teaching.

My third observation is that what many students depend too much on what their favourite preachers and Christian authors say. In the classroom discussions I find myself hearing the voices of some famous Christians. Depending on which essay I am grading, I find myself reading the view of a certain well-known conservative or progressive author. I keep saying to students that their favourite speakers and authors are probably right, but every theological student needs to learn to hear God’s voice through the Scripture. That is, our task is to learn to read the biblical text, and let it transform our lives through God’s Spirit.

Encouraging signs

But I am very encouraged by the fact that most of the students do love God, and they work hard. This must be the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives. They are not put off by my constant plea for careful attention to the biblical text. They do not refuse my repeated request to “stick to the text, rather than your favourite preacher.” They do want to study the Scripture, and they work hard to do so, because, I think, they love God dearly.

I am convinced that the majority of the students have learned a lot by the end of the semester. This is not surprising, because they have worked hard for it. They have learned the skill to study the Scripture, and are more determined to embody the crucified Christ and risen Lord in their daily life. Academically, many of them have improved greatly by the end of the course. My prayer is that the skill set they have acquired will be beneficial to them and the people around them, and that they will find it useful in their Christian vocations, no matter what they are.

Finally, I am greatly encouraged that some of the students have found a renewed desire to read the Bible. Even though they may have had some bad experiences in the past, they have found that the Scripture is indeed life-giving and life-transforming. To me, this is truly the work of the Spirit, and a demonstration of what the Scripture is—it is God-breathed.

Observation on the dominance of US and UK scholars in biblical scholarship

I think it is fair to say that biblical scholarship today is somewhat biased towards the views of English-speaking scholars. I think it is also true that the voice of scholars in low-income countries (who are mostly non-Western) is often not heard when it comes to biblical scholarship. I say this as an observation, not as a criticism. The reality is that English-speaking universities and seminaries are more well-to-do and have been engaged in biblical research for longer.

Interestingly, Göran Eidevall, a reviewer of Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets, says the following regarding this recently published dictionary (in a well-known series).

In the preface, the two editors declare that “scholars from all points of the scholarly spectrum, Jewish as well as Christian” (ix) have participated in the project. It is certainly true that several scholars with a Jewish background are among the contributors (but it is also true that DOTP never uses the terms Tanak or the Hebrew Bible alongside “the Old Testament”). However, in terms of gender, geography, or language, no balance has been achieved. Female scholars are underrepresented. The Anglo-American dominance is almost total. The majority within this vast array of experts come from (or hold academic positions in) North America. With the exception of the United Kingdom, European (including German) scholarship is poorly represented. Universities in Africa, Asia, and Latin America are not represented at all. There may be practical reasons for this. Nevertheless, many “points of the scholarly spectrum” are not visible in the picture presented by this dictionary.

The review is available online here.

I tend to think that biblical scholars from non-Western cultures can enrich our understanding of Scripture. But more effort is needed to ensure that their voice is heard.

What do you think?

Participation in a community hammered by poverty: Story of a New Testament scholar

I am always encouraged when a biblical scholar spends time with those living with poverty. This means that the scholar engages with both the Scripture and God’s world at the same time, which enriches her/his own understanding of the Bible and the people whom God loves dearly.

Here is the story of Timothy Gombis, Associate Professor of New Testament at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. (I posted this elsewhere last year, and I think it’s worth re-posting.)

“In the 90′s, my wife and I were in a doctrinally oriented church in which being Christian meant having the right mental furniture, having our doctrine sorted out right, and getting others to think the way we did.

During my doctoral studies in the early 00′s, we became convinced that being Christian was communally-oriented and needed to be lived out through service to one another and others. When we moved back to the States in ’04, we looked for a church that exalted Christ and reached out the poor and marginalized to absorb them into a thriving community life of flourishing. We found that church, an urban church plant that served a community hammered by poverty. We read the Gospels and sought to put many of these challenging texts into practice–learning to forgive one another, invite poor people to our homes, receive invitations to enter their homes (not easy for middle class people!), share the ministry load with “others” who didn’t do it like we did, etc. Those were wonderful years–hard, but so rich. Lots of other things to add here, but that’s just a sampling…

We recently moved to Grand Rapids and participate in a ministry that provides shelter for homeless people. We take up concrete service opportunities to participate in the ways our church proclaims the gospel and participates in it.”

The following is an excerpt of a separate correspondence I had with Tim. I really like what he says here.

“What changed everything for me was the day-in, day-out exposure to what it meant to live in poverty.  We recognized the power-differentials in our relationships when we just handed out money.  We invited others to minister alongside us in relationships of reciprocity and mutuality rather than top-down relationships of power-inequality.  It was tough, but it completely transformed us.

So many other lessons, too, but our eyes need to be opened through the actual experience–incarnational experience.” (Used with permission.)

(Click here for Tim Gombis’ blog post, and his story above can be found in the comment dated 30th April 2012.)

Bible: a life-long experience of transformation

I am teaching Introduction to Biblical Interpretation this semester. Inevitably I need to show the students some complex concepts of literary and historical-cultural analysis. But one thing I keep saying to students is that the best way to learn is to read and re-read the entire Bible. It takes time, but it’s worthwhile. None of the techniques and skills I teach can replace a consistent life-long prayerful engagement with Scripture.

Interestingly Tim Gombis mentions something similar in his blog yesterday. (Click here for his post.)

Gombis lists some popular concepts about reading the Bible (in North America).

We’re told to “get equipped” to get out there and “make an impact,” to be prepared to change the world.  We need to get trained so we can be maximally effective… And what does this involve?   Well, we need to get all the Bible knowledge we can, master the information, know all the facts, and be prepared to respond to various challenges with all the right answers.

But listen to Gombis’ advice.

My advice is to get to know the Bible over time—like, over decades.  There aren’t five easy steps to Bible knowledge.  I’ve told students in the past to measure their knowledge of the Bible in 5-year increments.  And when I’ve said that, I could hear sighs of relief.

Remember that the aim of getting to know Scripture is not to be equipped to get out there and have “impact.”

The purpose of knowing the Bible is to develop Scripture-shaped minds so that we get to know and love God more faithfully, being transformed so that we love and serve others more creatively.  The goal of Bible knowledge is the cultivation of virtue.  And this is something that only happens over time.

And the learning process itself transforms us, so we shouldn’t think that at some point we’ll be finished, “fully equipped” to get out there and put our knowledge to effective use.

I totally agree that reading the Scripture is a life-long experience of transformation. As I suggest to the students recently,
Studying the Bible is, ultimately, not so much about finding which view is the most convincing, even though it is necessary for credible research. Nor is it about working out what we think should be the right interpretation, although the thinking and discerning process is important. Rather, reading the Scripture is about listening for God’s address, hearing God’s purpose through Christ, and allowing the Spirit to shape our thinking and life orientation.