I see that the Gospel reading in the lectionary this week is Mark 12: 38-44. I'm preaching through the 10 commandments, so I won't be commenting on this passage on Sunday. But I would like to give a different perspective on this passage than what is normally heard.
It should be carefully noted that the 2 synoptic Gospels that include the account of the destitute widow dropping her little gift into the offering box at the temple have it sandwiched between 1) Jesus' warning about the scribes "who devour widows' houses," and 2) his indignant prophesy that Israel's temple/house will be destroyed (Mark 12:38–13:2; Luke 20:45–21:9). These three blocks of texts are inexorably connected.
- A warning against the scribes devouring widows' houses
- A poor widow giving all she has at the temple/house offering box
- Jesus condemning the temple/house of Israel to destruction
The widow is often used by preachers as an illustration of exemplary giving. She gives all that she has. Isn't that wonderful? Really? Would I as a pastor accept everything a poor widow had if I knew she was putting that much into the offering plate? No way. Think about it. Apparently this widow's poverty was known. And Jesus is not happy that the leaders of Israel are permitting this—more than that—encouraging it. He's pretty angry.
This story of the widow's offering is not intended to be read as a object lesson about sacrificial giving. It's not really about the exemplary piety of this widow. She is so faithful that she gives sacrificially and generously. There's some truth to this, of course. She is only following the advice of her pastors. The problem is that the advice of her pastors is monstrously wicked and she apparently doesn't know any better.
This story is an indictment of the leadership of Israel—this is how they “devour widows' houses.” They have created a system that preys on the weak and helpless. That makes them believe they are being faithful and godly when they give much more than they need to or can afford to give.
They have taught the poor to give everything they have to the temple building fund, which is contrary to the intention of the temple and the treasury system in Israel. And all to line their own pockets. Jesus is not first of all praising the widow’s action. We are being told this story so that we can know why the temple treasury system is going to be demolished and destroyed – because instead of providing for widows and the poor, it sucks up their wealth and leaves them utterly destitute. This is why the temple must be torn down, not one stone left upon another.