The episode of the poor widow was recorded both in the gospels of Mark and Luke [Luke 20:45-21:4], with only slight variations in words. I chose the Mark variation to study mainly because I feel that it offers a slightly more detailed account in context. Jesus was teaching in the temple, and after that he sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury [Mark 12:41]. Many rich people came and threw in large amounts. In contrast, a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins. A small gesture that probably meant nothing to many, but Jesus saw it and praised that act of faith.
Analysis: Poor Widow
Widows in those days were poor in all sense of the word. In context, Mark had meant that the widow was financially poor. It is important to note that Jesus had just taught about how one must watch out for the teachers of the law, who walk around in flowing robes and be greeted in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. Perhaps most importantly, Jesus said, they devour widow’s houses and for a show make lengthy prayers.
The widow was already poor – in the Jewish context, when a man dies, his wife is often left destitute. I’m no Jewish expert, but according to Jewish laws, a portion of the tithes of the people must be given to the underprivileged, which includes the aliens, the orphans and the widows [Deu 26:12]. They were not allowed to take advantage of a widow [Exodus 22:22] or oppress her [Jer 7:6]. Instead, they were instructed to defend her cause [Isa 1:17]. A widow without family support and thus truly in need, as defined by Paul in 1 Timothy 5:3-16, is entitled to receive help from the Church (at the time of Jesus, the synagogue) [1 Tim 5:16].
Analysis: Two small coins
When Mark wrote this story he could have simply said that the poor widow came and gave all that she had. Why tell us it was two very small copper coins? Why the detail? The poor widow had two copper coins, and according to their tradition, she did not have to give – in fact, she was eligible to receive help from them. But no, she still gave what she had, and I think it is amazing that despite having 2 coins, and she could have kept one for herself and given the other to God and still probably be praised for her faith in giving when she do not have enough for herself, an act of sacrifice as compared to the rich who merely gave what’s left over – yet she gave both! What a show of faith. What a test of faith! Why didn’t God leave her with 1 big coin? Why was it two small coins? Translating to our currencies today, why wasn’t it just a dime? Why was it two five-cents coins? She had the chance to keep one coin for herself as a form of assurance. Five cents may be worth nothing, but still, isn’t it human instinct to keep something for self-assurance, however little? But no. Her hope was in the Lord. With that assurance, she gave both coins up. None left. If God had left her with a dime instead of two five-cents, we would never have been able to see the extent of her faith.
Analysis: God sees our hearts
Jesus had sat down intentionally opposite the place where the offerings were put to watch the crowd in their act of offering. He didn’t just happen to be standing around or talking to someone when the poor widow came. He had sat down intentionally, set on watching people as they offer their money. Perhaps that was odd, but not in those days. The rich people who came before the poor widow would certainly be more than happy to have an audience. They threw their money into the treasury – as if they were scared nobody would see how generous they were. Jesus saw their hearts. They were not sincere. The poor widow came, and she would have been scoffed at for her miserable offering. But Jesus saw her heart.
Jesus may not be physically sitting and staring at us when we give our offerings today, but He is watching – not to see how much we give, but to check our hearts as we give. The rich people knew that others were watching. And they gave a lot – though it probably didn’t hurt them one bit. They didn’t sacrifice anything for the offerings, and they made a show out of their faux generosity. Remember Ananias and Sapphira? They gave because they saw that Barnabas did, yet they felt the pinch, and held back some money for themselves but lied to the apostles in order to put on a show of faux charity [Acts 5:2]. God is watching. He cares not about the amount, but about the heart. If your faith is strong enough to put in both of your last coins, so be it! Put it in cheerfully. God will be pleased. If your faith is strong enough for you to put in only one of your coins, so be it! Put it in honestly and cheerfully. God will be equally pleased. Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver [2 Cor 9:7].
As Christians the concept of tithing is very important. Most of the time, our tithes are what keeps the church running and supports the missionaries. No matter whether you are rich or poor, it does not matter. God looks not at the amount you offer – I tithe a tenth of what I have, which as a student is really not a lot, and still I struggle to do it – but He looks at the heart. Let us give generously [Rom 12:8], but more importantly, let us give cheerfully [2 Cor 9:7]. Let the poor widow – who was supposed to be hopeless, yet she found hope in the Lord – be an example to us.