Lessons learned from the Parable of the Widow’s Mite

I love context and I have found that without context, much of the Bible can be misunderstood – and even abused. The Parable of the Widow’s Mite is a parable that requires context to fully understand it and not misapply it. Unfortunately, the traditional point for starting this parable is Mark 12:41, which allows a reader to easily misunderstand what Jesus was really addressing when He spoke it. To grasp the real meaning, you need the full context, and you need to read and know all of Mark 12, but especially Mark 12:38-40.

Mark 12 is about the rocky relationship between Jesus and the religious leaders of the Jewish people. First, Jesus tells the Parable of the Tenants, Mark 12:1-12 in which He indirectly but unmistakably spoke of the rejection of Him, the Son of God, by religious leaders. The chief priests, teachers of the law and elders were angered.

Mark 12:12
12  Then the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders looked for a way to arrest him because they knew he had spoken the parable against them. But they were afraid of the crowd; so they left him and went away.

Next, in Mark 12:13-17, He answered a question they thought would discredit Him. The question was about Caesar’s money. His brilliant answer left them fuming stunned.

Mark 12:17
17  Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
And they were amazed at him.

Next, the Sadducees tried to trap Jesus with a trick question in Mark 12:18-27. They failed as well. That was followed by a teacher of the law who was impressed with Jesus’ answers who tried his question in Mark 12:28-34. Jesus handled that one perfectly as well. The religious leaders were left unwilling to challenge Him with any more questions for the time being.

Later, while He was teaching in the Temple, Jesus turned the tables on the leaders and He started asking the questions. See Mark 12:35-37.

Finally, Jesus really took the teachers of the law to task and addressed their righteous appearance and their shameful conduct in taking advantage of widows. Then, and only then and in that context, did the story of the widow’s mite begin.

Either with or without Mark 12:38-40 you could still misread this parable and believe it was about giving until it hurts, deep sacrificial giving. And while that is a reasonable conclusion to read into the words of Jesus, that was not His point with these events and this story.

Mark 12:38-44
38  As he taught, Jesus said, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces,
39  and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets.
40  They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”
41  Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts.
42  But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.
43  Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others.
44  They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

This story actually is not written as a parable told by Jesus. Instead, it appears to be a reporting of an actual event. Jesus sat and watched offerings in the Temple. I believe Jesus used this gift by a widow not so much as to commend her sacrifice, but to address the wealthy teachers of the law who, in their greed and self-righteousness, took every opportunity to “devour” widow’s homes. That closes out Mark 12 as a reporting of the conflict between Jesus and the religious establishment of His day, a conflict that led to His death.

There is a message in this story – there is a blessing for sacrificial giving, but this is not a call for all believers to give every last cent to the church. If you stop there and that is all you see, you miss several important lessons lying deeper in this story. There are other points of this story that are extremely important.

One point that is easily overlooked is that Jesus is watching those giving in the temple. Mark 12:41. Yes, He is watching His Father’s house and He is even watching us as we give now.

This is also a story that tells us that stewardship at all levels, even the smallest, matters to God, and that is what really matters. Jesus is telling us that there are no small gifts, only small hearts. It is in that same context that you can see a three-minute video of the poorest of the poor in northeast India, a region called Mizoram, where $1.56 million, 12%, of their regional church budget is raised by a program called Buhfai Tham, a Handful of Rice.

Those families in Mizoram live on less than a dollar a day and they give generously; they give their widow’s mite. They give sacrificially from their daily food. “Any time we have something to eat we have something to give to God.” Poor? Financially, they are, as one of the speakers says, “the poorest of the poor.” Spiritually, they are immensely wealthy. In a country that is largely Hindu and Buddhist, their region is 90 to 95% Christian. They have over 1,800 missionaries in India and many more overseas.

Lessons for the church and for believers

There are several other solid lessons that I am going to focus on. There is a lesson for the church, the leaders of the church, the wealthy persons who give a large portion of the budget of the church, and even for those unable to give large amounts. Money is important because the bills must be paid, but generosity in the eyes and heart of God isn’t about the money, nor does giving a lot make you righteous or worthy of being a “teacher of the law” or a leader.

The problem became more pronounced due to the Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017 passed in December, 2017. The much higher standard deduction was a significant benefit to many taxpayers but a huge nightmare for charities and non-profits. As taxpayers realized that they would get no tax benefit from charitable donations and other deductions unless in total they exceeded $12,000 for a single taxpayer ($13,600 for persons age 65 and above or blind), charitable donations decreased. From 2017 to 2018 the decrease in individual giving, adjusted for inflation, was 3.4%. While that small percentage does not sound particularly bad, it amounts to a net decrease in individual charitable giving of more than $3 billion without any adjustment for inflation. See Charitable Giving Took a Hit Due to Tax Reform.

The likely net result over the next few years is an increase in charities, nonprofits, and churches becoming increasingly dependent upon fewer large donors. There is a natural tendency for large donors to gain influence, meaning some churches could potentially come under increasing influence of fewer people. To compound that potential problem, fewer people are regularly attending church for a variety of reasons, especially reasons related to Covid-19

That isn’t necessarily bad. Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth in Philippi, was wealthy and was certainly influential in the little church of Philippi. See Acts 16. Abraham was wealthy and was also described as the father of us all, Romans 4:16, and a friend of God, James 2:23. Those positive examples are offset by the unhealthy influence of the wealthy religious leaders of Jerusalem Jesus addressed in Mark 12. What would those wealthy leaders think if they heard sermons on 2 Corinthians 8 and Paul’s call for equality?

2 Corinthians 8:10-15
10  And here is my judgment about what is best for you in this matter. Last year you were the first not only to give but also to have the desire to do so.
11  Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means.
12  For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have.
13  Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality.
14  At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality,
15  as it is written: “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.”

It isn’t a sin to be wealthy. See the comments above about Abraham. The Bible has many other examples of wealthy men and women whose hearts were right. However, it is important for the donors of all levels as well as church leaders to do a heart examination and focus, as Jesus did, on the size of the heart rather than the size of the donation. Recognizing large donors simply for the donation and assuming their hearts are right is a mistake.

There is a good reason why Paul urged Timothy to not lay hands on anyone quickly, 1 Timothy 5:22, and placed fairly stringent qualifications on church leadership. 1 Timothy 3:1-13. The Biblical warnings and examples of persons deceived by wealth abound, 1 Timothy 6:9, and probably every reader has seen wealth pull one or more families away from God.

About the Author

John Campbell has retired from a 40-year legal practice as a trial attorney in Tampa. He has served in multiple volunteer roles at Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz, Florida, where he met Jesus. He began serving as the Executive Director of the Idlewild Foundation in 2016. He has been married to the love of his life, Mona Puckett Campbell, since 1972.

This is the second in a series of articles on financial and other issues facing the American church in this no longer very new millennium. These articles represent the personal thoughts and reflections of the author and are not necessarily a statement of The Idlewild Foundation. These articles are based upon parables told by Jesus and stories from the gospels on events in His life, applying His life and teachings to the lives of believers and to the church as a whole and not to any one church in particular.