Friday, December 28, 2012

The End Back Then, Part 2: Worldwide Witness

While in Jerusalem, Jesus' disciples marveled at the grandeur of the Temple, but Jesus then told them that it would be completely destroyed. This enticed them to ask Jesus when the Temple would be destroyed, when He would return, and when the end of the world would be. Jesus began His reply by warning them of upcoming false Messiahs, wars, and disasters.

This is Part 2 of a five part series entitled "The End Back Then." The series entries are:

The End Back Then, Part 2: Worldwide Witness
Just how big is the world? That is a relatively easy question for us to answer today, but 2000 years ago that was not so easy to know accurately. Frankly speaking, there was far less reason to know or care about how big the world really was 2000 years ago, and that would be especially true if you believed that God had given your people a select plot of land. We will see some of that geographical bias while we work through this study, as we continue on in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21:5-37 (plus Luke 17:22-37) to review the several signs provided by Jesus which harken the end of the world.

Matthew 24:9, Mark 13:9, and Luke 21:12 are in a little bit of disagreement on the precise timing on the next given signs. Mark, the likely original source for Matthew and Luke, simply tells us that the disciples will be handed over to the authorities and will witness to them. Both Matthew and Luke felt the need to clarify exactly when the witnessing to the authorities would happen, but unfortunately they disagree. Did I say unfortunately? I meant hilariously. Matthew says that this handing over will happen "then," as in after of the wars, rumors of wars, and natural disasters. Luke, on the other hand, claims that the handing over will happen "before all this." We will see why Luke chose the early path in a moment.

The Gospel of Mark was likely the source material for this section for both Matthew and Luke, but Matthew significantly reconfiguring Mark's content. For example, if you compare this episode's text in Mark 13:9-13 with the sending out of the Twelve Apostles on their first mission in Matthew 10:17-21, you will see very similar verses in similar order. But when we get to the "contemporaneous" recording of Matthew 24:9-14, the order has changed, and the words regarding family members betraying each other and how the Holy Spirit will speak through the disciples are absent.

What about Luke? While there is some extensive rewording, Luke 21:12-19 has essentially the same content as Mark 13:9-13, with one exception. But before we get to the exception, there is one particularly interesting elaboration in the rewording we find in Luke 21:15
"For I [Jesus/God] will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict." NIV
Now that would be a really powerful sign of the presence of God! To have God provide wording which could neither be resisted nor contradicted by your adversaries would be amazing. And with that kind of power, the whole world would quickly be converted to believing in Jesus. Of course, that is not the case. There is a lot of resistance to Christian evangelism, and contradictions to known facts and Scriptures are some of the reasons for the resistance. Through God's power, we could not even get the Scriptures themselves free of contradictions, so what does that tell you?

Now, about that exception in Luke; for perspective, let us take a quick look at Matthew 24:14 and Mark 13:10, giving Mark's Gospel the proper primacy:

Mark 13:10 (NIV) Matthew 24:14 (NIV)
And the gospel must first be preached to all nations. And this gospel of the Kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.

We see that Mark's words are a little ambiguous. What exactly does he mean that the Gospel "must first" be preached? Does that mean that it will be preached before the wars and tribulations previously prophesied, or does it mean before the end of the world? The answer to that question depends on which other Synoptic Gospel you consult. As we can see here, Matthew clarified what Mark had originally intended. Luke, on the other hand, dropped the explicit reference here to preaching to all nations, but preserved his perceived early timing of event. That is why we found the contradiction noted above, where Luke said that this witnessing would occur "before all of this," as in before the wars and tribulations.

Now what exactly does it mean to preach the Gospel to all nations, or to the whole world? If it means to preach the Gospel to each and every person in the entire world, that will never happen, so perhaps we should focus on the "all nations" aspect. Some amount of preaching must reach each nation. Has that already happened? Yes, but in the sense of how the Jews understood the world at that time, it happened much sooner than what we, today, would have thought possible, because their world was much smaller.

There are several references in the Old Testament portraying a very small world, and a much flatter world at that. Just search for the phrase "ends of the earth" for example. The phase itself is nonsense taken literally. It is like being in a round room and being told to sit in the corner. There is no "end" to this sphere we live on, unless you consider the earth's crust as its end, in which case all of the land masses count as the ends the earth. This is a vestigial relic in our vernacular which is based on a primitive understanding. We can only understand it today when taken to metaphorically mean "the most remote places" or geo-egocentrically to mean the places far away from us. But the "ends of the earth" of the Bible had a much more literal meaning, a meaning made clear in the following four representative quotes:
Deuteronomy 28:64
Then the LORD will scatter you among all nations, from one end of the earth to the other. There you will worship other gods—gods of wood and stone, which neither you nor your ancestors have known. NIV

Ezra 1:2
“This is what Cyrus king of Persia says: “‘The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. NIV

Psalm 74:17
It was you who set all the boundaries of the earth; you made both summer and winter. NIV

Isaiah 41:9
I took you from the ends of the earth, from its farthest corners I called you. I said, ‘You are my servant’; I have chosen you and have not rejected you. NIV
It is difficult to scatter people from one end to the other of a sphere. Cyrus the Great allegedly claimed to be given all the kingdoms of the earth by God, but his empire never stretched beyond the Greece in the west or India in the east. God set boundaries for the earth, which is not logical for a sphere. And in the final quote, it is referring to to return of the Jews from exile; the event alluded to in the alleged quote from Cyrus. Obviously, the Jews had not been sent to the farthest corners of the earth relative to Jerusalem.

Just in case you think this problem is limited to the Old Testament; think again. You find references to the "ends of the earth" in Matthew 12:42, Mark 13:27, Luke 11:31, Acts 1:8, Acts 13:47, Romans 10:18, Revelation 7:1, and Revelation 20:8. Revelation actually one-ups the simple "ends of the earth" by referring to the four corners of the earth, as if it was a square or rectangle. But most significant are the words from Jesus Himself, because He, of all people and deities, should know better. Check out these Jesus quotes:
Matthew 12:42
"The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now something greater than Solomon is here." NIV

Acts 1:8
"But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." NIV
The first verse is a reference to the Queen of Sheba visiting the Israelite King Solomon. She came from the "ends of the earth," or which was likely Ethiopia or northwestern Yemen. That is not even the "end" of the African continent, let alone the end of the earth.

The second verse is a reference to Pentecost, when the Disciples received the Holy Spirit and so they spoke in tongues. Per Jesus' own words, it was precisely these Disciples who would be the witnesses to the ends of the earth, which is laughable given that they never made it to the Americas, or even Australia. Not only that, it seems that Saul/Paul was the main evangelist for the Gentiles, not these Disciples. Yet Jesus thought that these guys would be the witnesses to cover the world. Fail!

Considering this perspective, we can ultimately see how relatively little effort and time would be required to spread to all the nations of the world, at least as far as the Gospel writers understood it. They thought the goal of spreading the Gospel to the whole world was achievable, and achieved, within their lifetimes.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The End Back Then, Part 1: Rumors of Wars

While in the Temple courtyard in Jerusalem, Jesus said that He was not the son of David. Observing a poor widow donated all the money she had to the Temple, Mark and Luke recorded how Jesus taught a lesson to His disciples. Before that lesson was given, Mark and Luke record how Jesus rebuked the Teachers of the Law. Matthew expanded that condemnation for most of a chapter.

This is Part 1 of a five part series entitled "The End Back Then." The series entries are:

The End Back Then, Part 1: Rumors of Wars
"The time has come," [Jesus] said. "The Kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!" NIV
So were Jesus' first words of public ministry, according to Mark 1:15. They carry a certain sense of immanency. The time has come. The Kingdom of God is near. It is hard to imagine that these words are applicable to something which has not yet happened in the roughly 2000 years since when they were written. Should we still be waiting to see the Kingdom of God? That depends on how you see the signs.

Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21:5-37 (plus Luke 17:22-37) all record several signs, provided by Jesus, which would be the harbingers of the eternal Kingdom of God being established. With the Kingdom would come the end; the end of sin, and the cessation of all of the trials and tribulations of the world as we know it today. Or is "today" too far along in time from these prophesies? Careful consideration of these verses should reveal to us whether or not the end was thought to be back then, or something we should still be expecting.

The prophetic stage is set when some of Jesus' disciples expressed how glorious the Temple in Jerusalem was, and then Jesus replied that it would be completely destroyed (Matthew 24:1-2, Mark 13:1-2, Luke 21:5-6). That shocking statement was the impetus for the question asked in Mark 13:3-4 and Luke 21:7, but most clearly rendered in Matthew 24:3:
As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately. "Tell us," they said, "when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?" NIV
The "this happen" refers to the destruction of the Temple. The "your coming" refers to Jesus' Second Coming, when His Kingdom will be established (Matthew 16:28). The "end of the age" is only slightly trickier to parse out due to the word "age" being used. What does that mean? It comes from the Greek word transliterated as "aiōnos," which is a more emphatic form of "aiōn." The base "aiōn" is an era or age representing a cycle of time, so the emphatic "aiōnos" would be a reference to the greater cycle of time, as in what has been collectively known human existence, and in contrast to the promised eternal era to come with God's Kingdom. You could easily swap out "end of the world" for that final phrase and still have essentially the same meaning. Indeed, several Bible translations do just that.

OK. So how does Jesus reply to these questions that everybody wants to know?

Jesus began by warning of many people who would show up and falsely claim to be the Messiah (Matthew 24:4-5, Mark 13:5-6, Luke 21:8). This is a somewhat vague claim. While we know there have been many false Messiah's, we do not know how many we should expect. It is possible that there were already several false Messiahs wandering around shortly after Jesus' death, which is suggested by 2 Corinthians 11:4, just like how there were allegedly already many antichrists back then (1 John 2:18). So this prophetic point is not much help.

Next, we have the promise of a tumultuous time with "wars and rumors of wars," where nations battle nations, and there are accompanying disasters like famine and earthquakes (Matthew 24:6-8, Mark 13:7-8, Luke 21:9-11). So we have even more vagueness; signs of the types of things which have happened throughout the history of civilization. How can we possibly differentiate between wars or famines which are "signs" and those which are just "normal?" (That question is only valid if you believe that wars, natural disasters, etc. occur without God's control, but that is a topic for a whole other study!)

There is one other oddity. That bit about "rumors of wars" is telling of the time period with which this prophesy applies. We are beyond "rumors" of war. In our inter-connected world, we can know with certainty, via satellite and social media, within such a short time to make the concept of a "rumor" of a war laughable. There either is one, or there is not one, but such was far from the case 2000 years ago. (Unless you include the "war on Christmas," which is truly a figment of the imagination!) Now in Luke's version, the rumors of wars are replaced by "revolutions," suggesting even more turbulence. Let us close out this study with a look at the chaos of that era, and the possible causes of some rumors.

There were, indeed, wars after Jesus. While people usually know about the Roman Empire, not many know about the competing empire of that time; the Parthians. The buffer zone in between these two mighty powers was largely made up of the Kingdom of Armenia, situated to the northeast of Jerusalem, and comprising land which is now part of northern Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Azerbaijan, as well as the present-day nation of Armenia. So here is a short timeline of some of the conflicts and instability following the life of Jesus:

36 CEThe decision of the Parthian King Artabanus II to place his son on the vacant Armenian throne triggered a brief war between Parthia and Rome.
43-96 CEThe Roman conquest of Britain
51 CEIberian prince Rhadamistus conquered Armenia. Paelignus, Roman governor of Cappadocia, invaded and ravished western Armenia.
~53-54 CEParthian King Vologases invaded Armenia, driving out Rhadamistus, but retreated due to a harsh winter epidemic, allowing Rhadamistus to reclaim the kingdom.
54 CEThe people of Armenia revolted and overthrew Rhadamistus. Parthian King Vologases I then installed his brother, Tiridates, on the Armenian throne.
58-61 CEThe Hyrcanians, in the region near the southern end of the Caspian Sea, rebelled against the Parthians.
58-59 CEWar erupted in 58 AD between Rome and Parthia in Armenia, where Roman forces forced the Parthian rulers out of Armenian. The Romans gave the Armenian throne to Tigranes VI.
60-61 CEOn the island of Britain, Queen Boudica led the Iceni tribe in rebellion against the Romans.
61 CETigranes VI invaded Adiabene, a Parthian provence.
62-63 CEParthian King Vologases I and his brother Tiridates aggressively counter-attacked in Armenia, conquering the Roman general Paetus in an embarrassing fashion. But negotiations resulted in Tiridates accepting the Armenian crown from Nero in Rome.
65 CEGaius Calpurnius Piso and others led a conspiracy to claim the Roman crown and slay Nero, but the conspiracy was discovered before its plans were enacted.
66-70 CEThe first Jewish-Roman war, started over religious disputes and taxation, and ended with Jerusalem conquered and the Temple destroyed by the Roman general Titus.
68 CEGaius Julius Vindex of Spain rebelled against Nero's tax policy. Nero sent Vitellius to crush the rebellion.
68-69 CEThe Year of the Four Emperors of Rome. Galba was voted to be Caesar, prompting Nero to flee and commit suicide. Galba started killing all those who opposed him. Otho bribed the Praetorian Guard for a coup d'état' against Galba. Otho seemed to be a better ruler, but Vitellius marched from Germany to claim the throne. Otho was defeated in the Battle of Bedriacum, and then committed suicide in the hopes of stabilizing the empire. Vitellius was named Caesar, but he, too, ruthlessly killed opponents, and extended the same violence to any possible heirs. He nearly bankrupted the empire with parties every day. Meanwhile, many eastern parts of the empire claimed Vespasian as their emperor. Before the eastern legions could reach Rome, Vespasian gained even more support in the empire. Vespasian's forces, led by Marcus Antonius Primus, invaded Italy. In October, the forces led by Primus won a crushing victory over Vitellius' army at the Second Battle of Bedriacum. Vespasian took the throne.

What is the point of this history lesson? There were surely many wars, rumors of wars, and revolutions occurring in the time immediately following Jesus' life, relatively speaking. Furthermore, the conflicts and instability ramped up in intensity and frequency toward 70 CE. So this first part of the "prophesy" was already fulfilled a long, long time ago. These verses were not meant to serve as a warning to us, but rather to those who lived, and died, centuries upon centuries before our time. Or, perhaps more likely, they were written about these events after the fact, in order to bolster the claims of Jesus' imminent second arrival.

These signs of wars and natural disasters were to be "the beginning of birth pains." So the end was not to come exactly when these particular signs appeared, but it was, as the metaphor implies, the beginning of the birth turbulent of the Kingdom of God. While some mothers may argue that they were in pain "forever" while giving birth, we know that birth pains mean that the child will imminently be delivered. We should not expect that the Kingdom of God has yet to be delivered today, roughly 2000 years since the birth pains began.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Sermon on the Backs of the Pharisees

In the courtyard of the Temple in Jerusalem, Jesus explained that He was not the son of David. That seemed a bit strange, given that the prophesies required the Messiah to be of David's lineage, that the Apostles claimed the contrary, and later He Himself claimed to be an offspring of David. Mark and Luke recorded how Jesus praised a poor widow who gave everything she had to the Temple. But before that praise, Mark and Luke show Jesus rebuking the Teachers of the Law a little bit. Matthew took that theme of condemnation, and ran with it...

Sermon on the Backs of the Pharisees
Matthew was great at aggregation. In writing his Gospel, he understood that it would be much more convenient or impressive to have the teachings of Jesus which had no significant background story to be grouped into one cohesive package, as opposed to being scattered throughout the various tales and anecdotes. Thus, the Sermon on the Mount was born. But besides those teachings, another common thread of snippets could be found in the stories of Jesus; that of condemnation of particular groups of the religious elite. So Matthew compiled another "sermon" of sorts.

Matthew 23 is an entire chapter primarily devoted to the condemnation of the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law (a.k.a. Scribes). Luke 11:37-54 is somewhat of a parallel, containing much of the same material, but not all of it and in a different order, and at a much earlier point in Jesus' timeline. Let us quickly step through this rant.

One of the most interesting parts is the very beginning, which is material unique to Matthew. Jesus was speaking to the crowds and His disciples (Matthew 23:1). In Matthew 23:2-3, He opened with:
"The Teachers of the Law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach." NIV
This is both interesting and frightening, because Jesus is effectively suggesting that you must submit to authority, regardless of whether or not that authority is good. This is a consistent message throughout the Bible, from David refusing to harm the anointed King Saul despite the evil he had done (1 Samuel 24:6-10) and killing the guy who killed King Saul (2 Samuel 1:1-16), to Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-21 stating that God has put the authorities in power, and so they must be obeyed.

In Matthew 23:4, Jesus then laments how They (Pharisees and Teachers of the Law) burden the people. Luke 11:45-46 parallels this, but is targeted to "experts in the Law."

In Matthew 23:5-7, we see that They love ostentatious displays, the various forms of respect they get due to Their position, and being called "Rabbi." Luke 11:43 says some of the same things, as do the later, more synchronized passages of Mark 12:38-40 and Luke 20:45-47, but Mark and Luke lack a reference to the honorable title of "Rabbi." This is interesting, because next we see...

In Matthew 23:8-10, oddly unique to Matthew, and contradictory to the Catholic church, Jesus instructed to call no man a "Rabbi," Master, or Father, because that role belongs to God. And only Jesus Himself should be called Teacher. (You probably started transgressing this command in elementary school.)

Tapping into that theme of humility (not claiming lofty titles), in Matthew 23:11-12 we see Jesus saying that you should be a humble servant if you want to be exalted. Essentially the same message is also found in Ezekiel 21:26, Matthew 18:3-5, Matthew 20:25-28, Mark 9:35, Mark 10:42-45, Luke 1:52, Luke 9:46-48, Luke 14:11, and Luke 22:24-27. Strangely, it is nowhere within the Gospel of John.

In Matthew 23:13, Jesus said that They do not enter the Kingdom of God, and They prevent others from doing so. In the parallel of Luke 11:52, Luke was a better editor. He had in mind the Elect, and so he slightly relaxed the language, in that the "experts in the Law" only hinder people entering the Kingdom, as opposed to preventing them from doing so.

Depending on what Bible version you have, you may or may not see Matthew 23:14, where Jesus condemned Them to severe punishment for being unmerciful to widows and making ostentatious prayers. Mark 12:40 and Luke 20:47 have essentially the same content, but some manuscripts lack this line within Matthew.

In Matthew 23:15, Jesus said They work hard to find any religious convert, but then make him twice the "son of Hell" that They are. This is interesting on many levels. Judaism does not have an explicit call for the form of evangelism described here. There was no "Great Commission" for the Jews. However, that is not to say that God did not expect converts. God expected that, if the Jews actually obeyed His Law, other nations would be both impressed by the wisdom of God and somewhat jealous of the blessings the Jews were receiving from Him, and therefore would become interested in learning His ways (Deuteronomy 4:5-8, Psalm 67:1-2, Isaiah 2:3, Micah 4:2).

Besides the evangelism aspect, the "son of Hell" is also an interesting point to ponder. In a previous study, we discussed how there are many who think that references to Hell (Gehenna in the Greek) are to a valley full of tombs and/or trash, and so the reference of that valley was similar to saying "your path leads to death" or "do not throw your life away." However, with the "son of Hell," the "son" carries with it a certain metaphorical weight in the sense of being like its "father," whatever that father is, like what we see in John 8:44. So is this equivalent to saying a "son of trash," a "son of death," or perhaps a "son of the Devil"? Unfortunately, this is unique to Matthew, so we have no other references to help us.

Moving on, in Matthew 23:16-22, Jesus complained that They have Their system of meaningful swearing backwards, because they place the things that can be taken (gold, offerings, etc.) at a higher value than what is more permanent (the altar, the Temple, etc.) That makes sense if you are looking at overall significance, but if you are swearing by something as a guarantee that you will fulfill that oath, it makes more sense to do so by something you can actually lose if you fail to deliver on your promise. This is again unique to Matthew.

In Matthew 23:23-24, Jesus lamented that They focus on the minute details of the Law, but not the more important parts of justice, mercy, and faithfulness. There are no specifics here; just these general charges. It is difficult to know how they were not providing justice. As for faithfulness, Deuteronomy 11:13 is the closest reference to faithfulness within the Law, where it instructs to faithfully obey the Law. As for mercy though, there is none in the Law, literally. The only reference to mercy within the commands of the Law is found in Deuteronomy 7:2, and that says to "show them no mercy." Perhaps this is why Luke (who was a better editor) said that the Pharisees were ignoring "justice and the love of God" instead in his parallel in Luke 11:42.

In Matthew 23:25-28, Jesus accused Them of being hypocrites of cleanliness, giving themselves a clean appearance on the outside, but being greedy, wicked, and unclean on the inside. Luke 11:39-41 is a partial parallel of this section, but has Jesus saying that the Pharisees should give what they have to the poor, and then everything will be clean for them. In a loosely related parallel to the Matthew 23:27-28 reference of whitewashed graves, in Luke 11:44 the Pharisees are called unmarked graves. And while we are on the subject of graves...

Matthew 23:29-36 is the ultimate crescendo of condemnation. Jesus accused Them of being like Their forefathers who killed the prior prophets, despite the fact that They build tombs to honor those same prophets. Just to prove it, Jesus will send Them prophets who They too will kill.

You may ask: "Why is Jesus purposefully sending people to be slaughtered?" You and I know that is a morally repugnant idea, but Jesus thought that would be the ideal way to condemn Them. In Matthew 23:35, we see that They will take the blame for all sorts of injustice, including that which They held no responsibility for:
"And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the Temple and the altar." NIV
Luke 11:47-51 is the parallel to this passage, and it carries the same overreaching assessment of blame. This is hardly perfect justice, and not what should be expected or accepted of a perfect God.

This mean-spirited chapter closes out in Matthew 23:37-39 with Jesus generally lamenting Jerusalem's rejection of God, as well as a prophesy of His return when they will have repented. In a different area, the parallel of Luke 13:34-35 has these exact same words, supporting the idea that this lamentable anecdote was just a scrap of a recorded saying without any immediate context, which needed to be fit into the Gospel wherever it seemed appropriate to the author.

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.