Jesus sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For 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.’
If there was ever a lesson to be learned in making sure we take a passage in context, this is it!
Here is a woman … nameless, poor and a widow, and only four verses are taken up with the story … she’s barely appearing ‘above the radar’… except that Jesus notices her.
Over the years, I’ve heard quite a few sermons on these verses – I expect we all have (I might have preached one of them!) – and every single one of them was reflecting upon the sacrificial gift of the woman, and was probably challenging us to give that much to God. And yet … just look at what comes before her story. Jesus has just finished denouncing the Scribes who “devour widows’ houses …” (v40) and of the widow Jesus says she’s given, “all she had to live on” (v44). Surely there is a critique here of a temple system that demanded a tax be paid which, in this case, stripped the poor widow of all she had. The question is, did she have a choice? Is this a story about free generosity, or is it a story about a greedy religious establishment? For years of my Christian journey I believed it was the former … I now believe it is the latter …
… that’s because of the context of Jesus’ critique of the establishment, and also because I cannot believe that the Jesus who cared so much for the poor and the outcast would want this widow to have nothing to buy her next meal with.
I think this all means that, as we read about the widow and her two small copper coins, we need to be asking ourselves about the demands we place on others … and the demands that are placed upon us within the life of the church. Those demands might be about behaviour or ‘fitting in’ (my parents never let me wear trousers to go to church – today that will be something different, maybe the youngsters who have their mobile phones out) … or they might be about who takes communion (I had to leave the sanctuary and not even ‘watch’ people take communion, let alone receive it until I had been made a member – today, that’s a conversation about children receiving, or who is leading the communion service).
Are there things we need to ‘relax’ in order that all might thrive?
Lord, as we give of ourselves and of our money we trust that you will help us to be generous and wise, and we pray that you will steer us in the use of our time and energy and resources. As we ask you to guide us, as a church, in the demands we make of one another – may we be generous in our not-requiring as well as in our offering. For Jesus’ sake. Amen
The Rev’d Dr Rosalind Selby is the Principal of Northern College in Manchester.