The church has always had a very ambiguous relationship to money and hard economic times. The Gospels comment frequently on the trappings of money, and the New Testament consistently encourages Christians to give of their means and to share their blessings with the community of faith.
But what happens when some of our members don’t have any resources to share? How do we treat those who cannot give due to hard economic times? What does the church do when its people are struggling to pay an underwater mortgage, let alone a 10-percent tithe? In other words, what happens when we read the story of the widow’s mite within the context of the Great Recession?
The story of the widow’s mite has long been a story read in a positive fashion. A lonely widow entered the temple area, made her way around all those giving large sums of money and dropped her last two copper coins into the temple’s treasury. Jesus gathered his disciples around him and exhorted them to live as she does. This widow’s gift, because it was given out of her poverty, was more than all that was given before her.
The moral of the story: Give sacrificially, even when you have not, and God will reward your faithfulness.
Is this really what Jesus was attempting to teach his disciples, or is there another lesson here? In praising the widow, might Jesus be subtly condemning economic violence done by those who want to preserve their religious power and status?
The widow’s presence begs so many unanswered questions and challenges us to examine her act of faith demonstrated 2,000 years ago. What caused the woman to be widowed? Did she not have a family or son that could care for her? From where did she come that day as she slowly approached the treasury, and what might she have forfeited by giving her last two small copper coins? What happened to this woman after she gave her offering? What might she have sacrificed? Did she die in poverty despite her faithfulness to the temple?
A small, often overlooked detail is at the beginning of this passage in Mark 12:39-44.
Prior to the woman’s appearance, Jesus offered some harsh words for the scribes who “wear long robes … like respectful greetings … and chief seating in the synagogue … and devour widow’s houses …” He said, “These will receive greater condemnation.”
After these words, Jesus sat close to the treasury and observed the giving in the temple. He saw the widow enter, and perhaps at this moment, his heart dropped because he knew what was about to happen. She gave all she had.
Was Jesus using this woman as an example of sacrificial giving, or was he offering words of warning and condemnation to institutions that make people feel like they have to give their last loaf of bread to the church?
The temple was a powerful institution and was the center of religious observance. One’s relationship to the temple was indicative of one’s relationship to God.
In this type of power structure, the temple could actually “devour” widows and other poverty-stricken people by covertly coercing people to give what they did not have. The scribes, as keepers of the faith, had the power to influence the religiously devout populace and preach a message that would maintain their own power and prestige at the expense of a populace that could not afford to give.
In essence, an institution that makes people feel like they have to give out of their own poverty is a questionable and sinful institution indeed.
For churches that are feeling the pinch of the Great Recession, what lesson might Jesus be teaching us? How does the church hear this story all over again?
1. We must hear Jesus as he warns us against using our clerical authority to penny-pinch already struggling believers. Our clerical office is to be used as a means of proclaiming good news, not guilt-tripping congregants into sacrificing their essential needs in order to pay a tithe.
2. It warns of using the Lord’s name in vain, that is, ascribing to God something not consistent with God’s character. God has always been about delivering the poor and marginal, not furthering their condition.
3. It challenges the church to find creative ways to pay for ministry and to trust in the direction of the Holy Spirit in financial matters. Offerings and tithes are not the only means of raising funds.
4. It is a reminder that the goal of the church is not self-preservation, maintaining our salary or keeping a fund or budget paid. If our sermons on money and giving are artificial means of promising blessings for those who give, we should remember the blessing given to Jesus at the end of his ministry: death.
In the end, Jesus might just be telling us: “Have longsuffering for the poor in your midst and do not steal their money for your religious purposes. And please, don’t use my name to preserve your church, institution or personal power. Let me repeat: These will receive great condemnation!”
Nathan Napier is a minister in the Church of the Nazarene and a graduate of the McAfee School of Theology.
A bi-vocational minister for over 20 years, Napier currently serves as a lay minister at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Cleveland, Tennessee. He holds a Doctor of Ministry from Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology, and his current research focuses on faith, culture and ethnography as pastoral practice.