The Widow’s Mite is the traditional name for a Bible story in the gospels of Mark and Luke about a poor widow that gives her last two coins to the temple treasury. Jesus comments to his disciples that, while they’ve seen many rich people contribute just a part of their wealth, she gave everything she had. “All of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on” (Mark 12:44).
“Mite” is the word used in the King James Version of the Bible to describe the coins, “two mites, which make a farthing.” That’s obviously early 17th century language rather than 1st century Judea, but the meaning is clear: they were small and of very little monetary value, likely equivalent to a fraction of a penny. But value is relative and to her, they were everything.
Many a church financial campaign in the past has cited this text as an example for giving. I’m going to say “financial campaign” rather than “stewardship” because if we’re looking at the widow’s personal stewardship, her use of her “mite” should raise some concern. Why would she give “everything she had, all she had to live on?”
In fact, one might argue that better personal stewardship was being shown by those who gave “out of their abundance.” We don’t know how much they gave, just that it wasn’t “everything.” They might have been generous, too.
I know, it’s not likely Jesus meant that. It was just a few chapters earlier that Mark tells the story of a rich man who asks Jesus what he should do and Jesus says “sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor” (Mark 10:21). That rich man wasn’t about to do that and Jesus sadly comments on how hard it is for the rich to come to the kingdom.
Okay, so the rich could give more. We could all give more. But, what if it’s not about money? And what if it’s also not just about the widow?
What if the widow’s real “might” is her faith in God, that, giving all that she has to God, or, at least, the Temple which does God’s work, she, and others in need, will be cared for and provided for. After all, care of widows and orphans is enshrined in the Law, the Law that’s at the heart of Jewish life. We should all have such faith.
Thing is, just before this tableau plays out, Jesus has been in the Temple and offered a warning to everyone about this, a condemnation of the scribes, the officials who have responsibility for the care of widows and orphans. They like to dress up and appear pious and demand respect for their rank, he says, but at the same time they’re stealing from widows. Jesus calls out their hypocrisy and greed.
What if this story is both a tale of profound faith and a condemnation of institutions that don’t honour it, that just “go through the motions.” Remember, too, that in Jesus world, the Temple and the Law were more than institutions, they were daily life. What if, in the gifts we offer and the sacrifices we make, we could have faith that they would be honoured by institutions and society alike. What if, in this complex weave which is our life, we must have faith in each other, that God – and all the love, grace, compassion, empathy and justice which is God – is present in both offering and need. What if we could build a world like that?