‘Take my silver and my gold,
not a mite would I withhold”.
So wrote Frances Ridley Havergal in her hymn ‘Take my life…” ’Mite’ is a reference to the King James Version of the gospel story of the widow and the tiny coins she dropped into the temple treasury collecting box. Havergal’s hymn is about willing self-offering of all we have and are, in response to the generosity of God.
That is also one way to interpret the story told in Mark’s and Luke’s gospel of the poor widow who gave away her whole means of livelihood. I don’t think that is the main point the gospel writers are making. That is why I like James Tissot’s watercolour. Take a look at the woman’s face. She seems to be leaving after presenting her donation. There is no joy in giving for her. She had no silver or gold. She only had 2 of the tiniest most worthless copper coins (leptons), not enough for food for even one day. And she gave away even those. What on earth was going through her head? The artist has shown her with a child, which makes imagining her situation all the more painful.
Did she do what she thought she was supposed to do as taught by powerful people in the system? Why had she gone to the temple in Jerusalem? Was she absolutely desperate for God to hear her prayers? Did she believe that God would only hear her if she offered a gift? Had she actually lost all hope, so felt there was no point in hanging on to her last 2 coins which were virtually worthless anyway?
Behind the woman is a richly dressed man, placing his large gift, perhaps hoping to be noticed and commended for his generosity. No-one in the picture is looking at him. Everyone is looking at the woman, someone who would not normally be noticed. But Jesus saw her, observed closely what she did. She was a destitute woman, with no power, no man to speak on her behalf. Because Jesus noticed her and spoke about her, this anonymous woman is remembered.
Sometimes she is remembered as an example of generosity and devotion. Given the context in which both Mark and Luke tell her story, I see her as an example of exploitation and injustice. Immediately before her story Mark and Luke record how Jesus denounced the scribes who love to have the places of honor, who “devour widow’s houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.” Jesus was angry at a corrupt religious system that exploited the poor when it should have been caring for those in most need. He condemned it. Then he noticed a victim of the system, the widow who gave all she had. Jesus did not praise her for her generosity. He simply pointed out that she gave everything, while the rich gave what they had to spare.
If you know the story, try to forget any interpretations you have heard and notice what the text actually says and what it doesn’t say. You can read it in Mark 12: 41-44 or here is Luke’s version:
“He (Jesus) looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.” (Luke 21: 1-4)
Only in an unjust society are the poor obliged to give until it hurts, while the rich and super rich give away a much smaller percentage of their wealth. I think that is what concerned Jesus. Has anything changed since then?
For further reflection
- should we praise what this women did or lament it? Was this generosity or exploitation?
- who are the ignored and voiceless in our society?
- what can you do to make society more just?
- can churches be guilty of exploiting those who are most generous with time or money?
- take a look at the Laura Turner’s post on this subject and the comments that follow, also that by Pam Smith
This post is part of a monthly series about Women of the Gospels