Friday, December 7, 2012

A Widowed Offering

In Jerusalem, Jesus clarified that He was no son of David, despite prophesies requiring the Messiah to be of David's lineage, claims of the Apostles to the contrary, and later claiming Himself that He was indeed an offspring of David. From there, the Synoptic Gospels vary slightly. Mark 12:38-40 and Luke 20:45-47 have Jesus condemn the Teachers of the Law for their ostentatious displays and self-centered attitudes. A little bit later, Matthew aggregates that condemnation with other points, and includes the Pharisees as targets as well, but we will get to that in a later study. First we will investigate some material not found in Matthew.

A Widowed Offering
In studying the Synoptic Problem, most scholars have concluded that the Gospel of Mark was a primary source for Matthew and Luke in constructing their Gospels. Matthew directly utilized about 94% of Mark's content. Of the remaining 6%, half of that was used by Luke and the other half is unique to Mark. Contrast Matthew to Luke, who included only about 79% of Mark's Gospel.

Because of the nearly complete overlap, any omission of Mark's content from Matthew is worth reflecting on deeper, as it may provide us with insight into Matthew's perspective and personality. However, Matthew did do a lot of cut-and-paste aggregation, like what we see in the Sermon on the Mount, so it is also possible that his omissions were either due to a accidentally overlooking content in that process or that he thought that the theme of a particular anecdote was already covered well enough in another location. I suspect that Matthew's omission of the Lesson of the Widow's Offering is significant in revelation.

In Mark 12:41-44 and Luke 21:1-4, there is the story of Jesus watching people making donations to the Temple's treasury. He saw a widow throw in a couple copper coins, and then (Mark 12:43-44):
Calling His disciples to Him, Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on." NIV
If we take a little time to ponder this, we find that this is a bit of a mixed message.

From the believer's perspective, the widow demonstrates an admirable level of self-sacrifice in gratitude for her Creator. She also demonstrates a great deal of faith, being confident enough in the providence of God to give away all of her money. And Jesus' words show that God has an appreciation for proportional contribution. The allocation is more important than the net total. The widow gave everything she had, 100% allocation to God, and so her offering is appropriately honored by God more than the fractional giving of the wealthy.

From the skeptic's perspective, this is fertile ground for religious abuse to thrive. Not only does God want you to give until it hurts, He approves of offering up everything to Him to the point of putting your own survival in peril. Preachers and pastors can shame their flock into offering up more than they practically should with the precedent set forth in these verses. Yet all the blame cannot be placed on preachers and pastors, as any faithful person reading these verse may be tempted to give beyond their means.

Theologically speaking, the larger issue here is that the tiny sum of money that she did have was not enough to live on anyway. This really draws into question the providence of God, because if this widow was so pious that she would give everything up to God, even to the point of jeopardizing her survival, why has her piety not already been noted and rewarded by God? Why is God not orchestrating things such that she has enough to survive?

In a previous study, we took a look at verses within the Sermon on the Mount which promoted both the creation and the perpetuation of poverty. From that study:
Continuing on in Matthew 6:25-34, and considering the parallel passage of Luke 12:22-31, Jesus' message becomes remarkably clear. The birds (ravens) do not sow, reap, or store food, and yet God feeds them. God clothes the grassy fields with beautiful lilies, even though the grass will not last. By contrast, you (believers) are more valuable to God than birds and you have an eternal soul, and so you will be even better fed and adorned by God.

This providence is not through your own labor, but rather by God's grace. That is why twice in each account (Matthew 6:25, Matthew 6:31, Luke 12:22-23, Luke 12:29) it says that you should not concern yourself with what you eat or what you wear.
What we see with this widow is that, starkly in contrast with these wealthy, fraction givers, it appears that she is not being cared for by God, as the money she had would barely feed her, let alone clothe her. As noted in that previous study, the promise of feeding and clothing appeared to refer more to the afterlife than to this one, yet there was an inherent expectation that God would give you at least enough to have your daily bread in this life. Jesus did say for you to sell what you have and give to the poor (Luke 12:33), but it would not make sense to give away what little you had if you were already poor yourself.

Thinking along this line makes me wonder if Matthew's omission of this anecdote was purposeful. Perhaps he reasoned how including these verses may be taken the wrong way. Perhaps he did not like the idea of those in poverty giving up even their bare necessities, given that God wanted us to live. Perhaps he saw a lack of God's providence towards this widow which ran counter to his own beliefs. Or perhaps this is just the speculation of a fool.


  1. I loved your line about the widow's mite story and religious abuse. It's alarming when scripture preaches abandoning all logical self-preservation to feed an already overfed religious establishment. More than a few Christians have made detrimental monetary sacrifices due to this verse, I'll bet.

  2. Thanks Ahab! When people ask if religion is harmful, its easy to point fingers at the exceptional cases of terrorism, the hate of Westboro Baptists, etc. But I think that this kind of abuse happens far more regularly, and most people completely miss the absurdity of it because it is cloaked in "good" quality of pious appreciation. So, yeah, I would bet on the same side as you. :-)

  3. I think I have to disagree with you a little bit on this one, but first let me focus on where I do agree. The story of the old woman is pretty terrible. It seems that she is being taken advantage of by the church, and telling poor people that they should give everything they have has obvious social consequences. In fact, this is one of the few stories I remember from church from when I was very young. I wasn't able to put my finger on it at the time, but this story always made me uneasy, it just never seemed right.

    So where do I disagree with you? Well, I think we are viewing this from a skeptical view (as you pointed out). But then, you said this

    "why has her piety not already been noted and rewarded by God? Why is God not orchestrating things such that she has enough to survive?"

    From our perspective, her live is in danger, she has no resources to use and cannot keep herself safe and well-fed. But perhaps from a Christian perspective, she does have what she needs, she is alive after all. She have given all she has to God, and God has given her everything she needs in return. Granted, she hasn't gotten anything beyond her needs, but that's okay. Perhaps God is orchestrating her survival, and we just can't see it.

    The really messed up thing, is even if she died, they would probably just say it is great for her because now she is in paradise, God really wins this no matter what happens.

    Anyway, this doesn't feel like one of those instances where we can use their own logic against them, this feels more like a situation where they have things sewn up for themselves.

  4. How dare you disagree, Hausdorff! I am the bearer of the TRUTH! ;-)

    Seriously, though, I am glad you brought that up. I did not list that possibility out of some laziness and bias on my part. It is somewhat valid, too, so I do not feel the case I have made in this particular post is wholly irrefutable.

    Under the traditional Christian view, what you suggest is perfectly reasonable. We should not necessarily assume that no money = no support from God.

    However, under the traditional Jewish view, the perspective is a bit different. If you check out Deuteronomy 28:1-14, you find a list of temporal blessings associated with obeying God's Law. Pursuant to that covenant, and if we can assume that the widow has obedient piety of equal measure to her Temple giving, God would be obligated by both His word and His love to provide more than just sustenance living for this explicitly-labeled-"poor" widow. At least, that was my thought, and why I was a bit lazy in providing a robust view here. :-)

    But thank you very much for raising that point, Hausdorff, because it truly was lacking in my post, and so the post seemed myopic. I appreciate you keeping me honest and lending your perspective!

  5. Ahh yes, I like it. Particularly deuteronomy 28:11 which says she should be "abound in prosperity"

  6. That type of blessing is why the whole "blessed are the poor..." Jesus said in the Beatitudes was so shocking, or at least would have been at the time. The Scriptures essentially promised that if you were good, God would take care of you, so wealth was a thought of as a sign of piety. Yet obviously that did not always prove to be the case. :-)

  7. So you are essentially saying that the beatitudes upended this particular passage from deuteronomy, or at least the wealth aspect of it.

  8. Yeah. Because it is so different than what God had promised, I wonder if this is one of the messages of the real, historical Jesus.