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.)

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Wealth and culture (An essay)

Introduction

When I worked in an aid and development organisation some years ago, I found myself frequently talking with Christians about the biblical view of wealth. The questions I encountered included the following.

Should I feel guilty about my material possessions?

Is it wrong to be wealthy?

Are you saying that we can’t own two cars or send our children to private schools?

I found it hard to answer these questions with a definite yes or no. To be honest, I never understood why these questions came up so often. Now I have come to realise that behind the questions is a particular worldview that shapes our view on wealth and material possession.

In the following we will take a look at the differences between Western worldview and non-Western worldview. We will see how our modern Western worldview might have hindered us from having a full appreciation of the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6:20-26. We will then consider a fresh understanding of wealth and poverty in light of our findings. On the one hand, our understanding of guilt and shame affects how we understand some biblical truths. On the other hand, the Scripture critiques some of our presuppositions about the social dynamics around wealth and poverty.

Western and non-Western worldviews

It is commonly recognised that the Western culture is, generally speaking, quite individualistic. People in non-western cultures, on the other hand, are communal. For us in the West, the welfare and the rights of the individual are very important. For people in many parts of the non-Western world, individual persons are often seen as an integral part of the community. The wellbeing and the rights of the community are, relatively speaking, more valuable.

Related to this, although less obvious, is the fact that Western societies tend to be guilt based. Other societies are more shame based. Duane Elmer helpfully makes the following observations in his book Cross-cultural Connections.

In a guilt-based society, people feel guilty for what they have done. An act, perhaps a lie or a violation of some rule, triggers the conscience that a wrong has been committed… A guilt-based society responds to the external laws of the land, rules of the institution, morals of the church and code of the home. It is hoped that these become internalized in the person. It is further hoped that when the individual is tempted to break a rule or actually does, that it will trigger the conscience, causing a sense of guilt and prompt the individual to stop.

In shame-based societies, the critical factor is not to bring shame upon oneself, upon one’s family, one’s tribe or even one’s country. One strives to succeed, driven by the desire to uphold family, school, company or national honor… One feels shame when disappointing important others or not living up to expectations of family, supervisor or company… Failure is defined in terms of one’s inability to meet the standards or expectations of important others.

Source: Duane Elmer, Cross-cultural Connections (Downers Grove: IVP, 2002), 173-4.

The significance of the above becomes clear if we take into account of what E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien say about wealth in their book Misunderstanding Scripture with Western Eyes.

Westerners instinctively consider wealth an unlimited resource. There’s more than enough to go around, we believe. Everyone could be wealthy if they only tried hard enough. So if you don’t have all the money you want, it’s because you lack the virtues required for success — industry, frugality and determination.

This understanding of wealth is the very opposite of how many non-Western cultures view it. Outside the West, wealth is often viewed as a limited resource. There is only so much money to be had, so if one person has a lot of it, then everyone else has less to divide among themselves… In those cultures, folks are more likely to consider the accumulation of wealth to be immoral, since you can only become wealthy if other people become poor.

Source: Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, Misunderstanding Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (Downers Grove: IVP, 2012), 41.

These are, of course, generalised statements (and in the introductory chapter the authors explain how parts of their book will contain certain generalisation). They are nonetheless reasonably accurate descriptions of the Western and non-Western worldviews on wealth. Richards is a biblical scholar in the US and a former missionary to Asia, and hence his observations are not made in a vacuum. I myself am a bicultural person, having grown up in Asia and lived in Australia for over twenty years. I do find Richards and O’Brien’s comments useful.

Putting the above observations together, it seems that in the West, people think that they have the right to be wealthy. If a person has worked hard to earn a lot of money, they have every right to be wealthy. The wealthy do not need to feel guilty about their wealth, even if the people around them are poor.

In many non-Western cultures, however, it is the community that owns the material resources available to the people. When someone has abundant material possessions, they are expected to share (at least some of) their wealth with the family, clan and indeed the whole community. It would be a shame for the wealthy to be tight-fisted. In other words, the wealthy should feel shameful if they are unwilling to give generously to the poor.

Of course, even in the West we would expect the rich to share some of their wealth with the poor. On the other hand, even in non-Western cultures clan loyalties tend to override obligations to outsiders. Also, we must recognise that there are subcultures in the West and that non-Western cultures are very diverse. But the above observations concerning wealth and culture do, I think, hold true in many ways.

Biblical teaching on material possession is not necessarily about guilt

In light of the above, I would like to propose a fresh way to read the blessings to the poor and the woes to the rich in Luke 6:20–26. Here Jesus makes some astounding statements.

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.

But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.

For those in Australia who have a certain amount of material possessions, this can be confronting. We know that we are, in fact, among the richest people in the world, and many Australians have enjoyed decades of economic prosperity. Does the above passage mean that upper and middle income Australians are wrong to be well-to-do?

Given our individualistic worldview, our main theological concern tends to be about ensuring that the ownership of material possession is valid. Also, given our guilt-based culture, we naturally want to make sure that we are not guilty of possessing money. In other words, when we come to the Scriptures that speak negatively about material possession, we feel that we need to respond by saying that wealth is not sinful and that the principle behind the Bible’s teaching is concerning the right use of wealth rather than the ownership of it.

But it seems that Jesus’ hearers in Luke 6:20-26 would not have understood it in terms of guilt or the individuals’ rights. Although we cannot say that the worldview of people in antiquity is identical with those in non-Western cultures today, it is likely that Jesus’ audience shares a somewhat similar view of wealth as people in many non-Western cultures today. In light of this, with the exception of the minority at the top of the social hierarchy, the audience of Jesus would probably have taken for granted that the rich were to share their possessions with the poor. They would see both the rich and the poor as interdependent parts of the community. It would have been a shame if the wealthy did not share their wealth with the poor. Their worldview would focus on the welfare of the entire community, and it would have been a shame for the rich to enjoy the benefits of their wealth without looking after the poor.

In other words, the issue is not so much whether it is wrong for certain individuals to be wealthy. Rather, the primary concern is the wellbeing of the community. That is, the problem is the coexistence of the rich and the impoverished in the society, where the wealthy are well fed but the poor are hungry. This does not necessarily mean that the poor do not accept the reality that the well-to-do hold a bigger portion of the available wealth. But it is not right for certain members of the community to enjoy the benefits of their affluence but others suffer because they are poor.

Jesus overturning the prevailing value system

So, it seems that our individualistic guilt-based worldview may have been a hindrance to recognise some of the social dynamics assumed in the Bible’s teaching on wealth and poverty. In other words, an appreciation of the communal shame-based worldview of the ancient world may have been helpful.

Yet Luke 6:20-26 is nonetheless profoundly challenging for Jesus’ audience. Like many non-Western societies today, the rich in the ancient world would have greater socioeconomic power than others. Often they held a high social status by virtue of their wealth. Their material possessions might even be understood to be the blessings of God. On the other hand, the poor were at the lower end of the social hierarchy, and they would receive little honour from those who had a higher social status.

Luke 6:20–26, therefore, overturns the prevailing value system. The poor are not inferior members of the community. Rather, they are to be honoured as valuable members of the society because God’s blessings will be poured out to them. On the other hand, the rich are not superior to the poor. The coexistence of the wealthy and the poor most likely implies a socioeconomic imbalance. According to the world’s value system, this social and economic power imbalance might have been okay as long as the wealthy help the poor. But according to values of God’s kingdom, this apparent social norm is radically challenged. Professor Joel Green says it well here.

“Poor” and “rich,” then, are socially defined constructs — and Jesus is overturning the way these terms have been constructed in ordinary discourse. In effect, he insists, you who are poor are accustomed to living on the margins of society and you who are rich routinely find yourselves surrounded by friends as you use your resources to solidify your position in society, but the reality under which you have been operating has been overturned. But asserting that the kingdom of God belongs to the poor, then, Jesus is redefining the working assumptions, the values that determine daily existence.

Source: Joel Green, The Gospel of Luke (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans) 267.

So, here is a good example of the topsy-turvy value system that we find in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus overturns the prevailing social convention, and implicitly calls for his audience to participate in an alternative communal life that God intends for humanity.

A new perspective of wealth

If the above social analysis is right, then our concern should not be about our right to own wealth and possessions. Nor should we be concerned about ensuring that we do not feel guilty about our wealth. Rather, we should focus on allowing Jesus’ teaching of the kingdom to shape every sphere of our lives.

Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20) Throughout Luke’s Gospel, we find Jesus spending time with the poor and those living on the margins — the lepers, the demon-possessed, the prostitutes, sinners and tax collectors. He created a community of followers from all walks of life. According to the values of God’s kingdom, no member in this community is superior or inferior to others. The needs of the poor are not taken lightly. Those with extra resources are called to share them with others. Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. Every person is as important as everyone else.

In the same way, let us embrace the values of God’s kingdom and orient our lives accordingly. Let us be less concerned about our individual rights and be more mindful of the wellbeing of others in the community. Let us reach out to those living on the margins of our society and extend our hands of friendship to them. Let us not be tight-fisted. And let us proclaim the good news to the poor through our words and deeds, because that’s what the disciples of the crucified Christ and risen Lord would do.