Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 1/14/96

Luke 20:45-21:4

The Widow's Mite

Luke 20:45 And while all the people were listening, he said to his disciples, 46 “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and love respectful greetings in the market places and chief seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets, 47 and who devour widows’ houses and for appearance’ sake offer long prayers. These will receive the greater condemnation.” 21:1 And he looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury. 2 And he saw a certain poor widow putting in two small copper coins. 3 And he said, “Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all of them. 4 For they all out of their surplus put into the offering, but she out of her poverty put in all that she had.”


How much did you put into the offering plate today? Ten percent? Of your gross? Of your net? Were you happy about it? How much did you keep? What did you give up to put in what you did? Do you know what the amount is really worth? Well, I do not want to know the answers to these questions. But there is Someone who does know them—and I’m not talking about our Treasurer, either. What can this passage teach us about our giving and how we may please the Lord in it? That is the question which the Text places before us today.


The first thing to notice here is that God notices what we give and why we give it. Now, of course, we all know this; we know that God knows everything. But the doctrine of omniscience is too abstract. “Everything” is such a huge thing that any particular thing can easily get lost (to our minds) in that vastness of infinite knowledge, so that we operate quite contentedly without realizing that any number of particular things are included. But while we easily forget that what we are doing at the moment is included in the divine omniscience, God doesn’t have our limitations. He is able to attend to every single detail as if it were the only thing he needed to notice, and give it a whole eternity of attention. This too we know, when we stop to think about it. But, unlike God, we cannot think of everything all the time. Our minds are inescapably dependent on the concrete and the specific to give meaning to the abstract and the universal—and vice versa. Therefore, it is most useful for us to stop and watch this little scene, to notice Jesus noticing the rich people and the widow. Without the doctrine, the story is just some strange thing that happened two thousand years ago. Without the story, the doctrine is meaningless and irrelevant. Put them together, and your life may be changed forever.

So, in the light of all we know about God, let us watch his Son watching the people filing past the offering box outside the temple. He takes notice of what they are doing. He sees the rich putting in an impressive amount that really amounts to a pitiful pittance of their abundant surplus. And he sees the widow putting in everything she had. He sees the general patterns and the individual acts. He sees the objective amounts and the subjective cost. He sees the thrusting out of the hands and the pulling back of the hearts—with one exception that everyone else fails to notice. He hears all of our talk about tithing, but he also knows that the average Evangelical actually gives less than four percent. He sees not only the surface, but also the substance; not only the amount, but also the attitude; not only the dollars but the desires; not only the practice but also the priorities; not only the coins in the hopper, but also the condition of the hearts. And that leads us to a simple but disturbing question: Do we give in the light of this vision of his? Does the Lord in us find the cheerful giver which Scripture says he loves? He found one in a poor widow once. And it made him sit up and take notice.


What was the value of the widow’s gift? We can answer that question from four different perspectives, each of which has something to teach us.

  1. To Society. The value of this offering to society was practically nothing. The coin the widow used was a leptos, the smallest and least valuable coin that was minted at that time. We can imagine it as much like our penny—though of course the analogy is not perfect, since prices vary so much from age to age and society to society. To put its purchasing power into perspective, we can say that if you had eight lepta, you could buy a small loaf of stale bread at the Jerusalem thrift store. The widow would have needed four times as much as she had to do just that. Two cents, then as now, was a paltry pittance indeed.
  2. To the Temple. The widow’s two cents was, if it were possible, worth even less to the temple than it was to society. Its value was so small that the temple considered such coins not even worth the time it took their staff to count them. They had even passed a law that you could not put in one leptos. Therefore, two lepta was quite literally the smallest contribution that was allowable. We can be sure that the treasurer rolled his eyes at them when he pulled them out of the offering box.
  3. To the Widow. The English translation says that the widow put in “all that she had.” In Greek it is panta tou biou, literally, “all her life.” The meaning is probably not that it was her whole life’s savings, but rather that it was all she had to “live” on that day, all she could scrape together to keep life in herself on that particular day. Therefore, she had a very simple decision to make. This day, should she eat, or should she give? She could not do both. And she chose to give. Obviously, this was not a choice she could make every day; if she did, she would die. But there were days when this was the decision she would make, and this was one of them. Such was her love for the Lord that she viewed her two cents in those terms. Oh, how zealous we feel if we give up steak for hamburger or peanut butter for the Lord! I do not mean to despise or put down those who have done that. I honor you, and I believe our Lord does too. But think of this widow! The story is told of a millionaire giving a testimony in church. “I had only one dollar, and I put it in the plate. I gave all I had. And God has honored that decision, which is why I am a millionaire today.” And then a cynical voice was heard from the back of the church. “Brother, I dare you to do it again!” What is my point? Not that you should hand over all your possessions, but just to get us to think about the fact that we always give what we value less to gain something that we value more. Look at this pen. [He pulls his pen out of his pocket.] It is a perfectly good ink pen. Mark, how about if I trade it to you for Binky [Mark’s first car—a bomb, but he loved it]. No? He must think Binky is worth more than the pen—at least to him, if nobody else. You will never give something you love for something you do not care about. You will never keep what you do not care about if you can buy with it something you really want. Therefore, every single one of your economic transactions reveals your priorities. If you want to know what you really value, just take a look at your budget. If you don’t have one, you can figure it out in reverse from your check book. See what you are giving for what. And see what place the Lord’s work has in that list of priorities. I am not suggesting it should be what it was for the widow. You have bills. You may have a family to take care of. But if you love the Lord like she did, it will show up in your checkbook somewhere. If it doesn’t, your claims to love the Lord are nothing but empty words.
  4. To the Lord. To Jesus, the widow’s two cents was worth more than all the pelf of the wealthy. How did he figure that? Let’s get the picture. The priests have just announced that we need a new Xerox machine for the temple. How much? Two thousand shekels. So Benjamin Bank Balance pulls out his check book, signs the check with a flourish, and says, “Here, this should take care of it.” The temple needs to purchase five new radio stations for its outreach ministry to the Diaspora. How much? Six hundred thousand shekels. No problem. Daniel Deposit Slip whips out his checkbook. “Here, this should take care of it.” The temple needs a new educational wing. How much? Two million shekels. No problem. Malachi Moneybags whips out his checkbook. “Here, this should take care of it.” And then a little half-starved anonymous widow chucks in two cents—and she gave the most? You’d better believe it! For Jesus noticed that the others gave out of their surplus, and did not suffer for it. But she gave out of her very lack. Her gift was an expression of love for God which said that he was more to her than her living. And that is what was worth the most to the Lord Jesus Christ.


Did you wonder why we started with the scribes at the end of chapter 20? It is because they are a part of this story, though this fact is obscured by an unfortunate chapter division. The link is the fact that the word widow occurs in both passages. The scribes added this to their long list of impious posturings, that they “devoured widows’ houses.” In other words, they were hitting them up for contributions, like the infamous televangelists of not so long ago who became notorious for air-conditioning their doghouse with money given from old ladies’ social security checks. Or I think of another one I heard saying, “If you don’t have the hundred dollars to keep this ministry on the air, borrow it! And the Lord will repay you ten or twenty or a hundred fold.” Have these people--both the evil askers and the gullible givers--never read 1 Corinthians 8:12? “For if the readiness is present, it is acceptable according to what a man has, not according to what he does not have.” We bow our heads in shame at the greed and selfishness of these theological schuysters preying on the naïve and foolish people of God while giving the enemies of the Gospel an excuse to blaspheme. But they are not new. They were practicing their inexcusable trade in the First Century, and they were called the scribes. And the widow’s story follows theirs partly to allow Luke to draw a contrast between their motives and hers. Their religion was all for show, prestige, and profit. She was simply motivated by love for God. And that—more than any figures or percentages or dollar amounts—is what got Jesus’ attention. We must believe it still does.


I do not know what you give, or should give, and I do not want to know. I know your situation is more complicated than the widow’s in the story, but I also know that it would be wrong for us to allow that fact to get us off the hook of what the Lord is trying to teach us through her example. I could give you a formula, but it would not solve the problem of wrestling with these decisions, decisions with which I struggle too. My main point today is not what we should be giving but why—for the why is for our Lord Jesus Christ that which determines the value of the what. You see, we must realize that each family and each individual is going to face a financial audit at the Day of Judgment. And as you prepare your books for that audit, I want you to understand how the Lord counts money. And he said, “Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all of them.” Within the bounds of responsibility, good stewardship, and Christian liberty, go thou and do likewise.

Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams

Updated 07/17/2007