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  Religion, Wealth and the Widow's Offering Thursday, April 18th, 2024  
by Siu Fung Wu

Does God want the widow's offering?

The widow's offering in Luke 21:1-4 is well known for its example of sacrificial giving. No doubt the widow's generosity is praiseworthy, and her willingness to give out of her extreme poverty challenges every tight-fisted Christian today.

Yet it is hard to imagine that Jesus intended every widow to give all she had to live on, given the fact that widows in the ancient world were the poorest of the poor,[1] and that the temple was an adorned and magnificent building (Mark 13:1; Luke 21:5).[2] To ask a widow to give to the temple treasury is like asking a poor handicapped woman to give away all her disability pension to the church for its new 2000-seat auditorium.

So why did Jesus mention the widow's offering? The first thing to note is that Jesus did not ask other widows to "go and do likewise". Instead, when Jesus said that "the poor widow has put in more than all the others," he was probably saying that the gifts of the rich were nothing but religious acts through which they could show off their religiosity. This interpretation clearly makes sense when Jesus' teaching in the previous passage is taken seriously.

The link to the previous three verses

In the three verses before the widow's offering, Jesus rebuked the attitudes of the Scribes - the religious leaders of his days.

The connection between the widow's offering (Luke 21:1-4) and the previous passage (20:45-47) is not obvious only because of the paragraph heading at 21:1 - inserted by most English translations. Yet one should note that in the original Greek text there were no chapters or verses, let alone paragraphs or punctuation marks.

There are in fact many points of contact between 20:45-47 and 21:1-4.[3]

First, "widow" is mentioned in both passages (20:47; 21:2, 3). Second, in both places there is reference to the "livelihood" of the widow - "house" (20:47) and "all she had to live on" (21:4). Third, in both 20:45-47 and 21:1-4 the powerless are contrasted against the powerful - that is, the poor widow against the religious leaders/the wealthy.

With these in mind, there is every possibility that the widow's offering is in fact an illustration of Jesus' teaching against the wealthy religious leaders.[4]

Wealthy religious leaders versus a powerless widow

Jesus said that the Scribes - the Teachers of the Mosaic Law - loved being "greeted in the marketplaces" and having "the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at banquets" (20:46; NIV). In antiquity these were symbols of the rich and powerful. In the words of New Testament scholar, Joel Green, the Scribes "enjoyed being treated as persons of status, as though they were wealthy benefactors."[5]

Jesus rebuked these religious leaders and said that they devoured the widows ' houses. Indeed they would receive greater condemnation (20:47). We are not sure how exactly they devoured widows' houses. But the parable of the persistent widow in Luke 18 suggests that widows were subject to systemic injustice.

Without a husband representing them, widows had the most vulnerable status within the society.[6] They were the defenceless and were often impoverished. The Lord loved them and he defended their cause (Deut 10:18). No wonder the Law demanded Israel to look after them (Exod 22:22-24; Deut 24:17-22). In fact, Moses said that cursed was the person who withheld justice from them (Deut 27:19). It is unimaginable that the Scribes - the experts of the Law! - should devour them.

It is in this context that Luke mentions Jesus' comment on the widow's offering. The rich gave out of their abundance, but the poor widow gave to the temple treasury everything she had.

Her sacrificial giving was a sign of her devotion to God - something to be praised, but probably unnecessary in practical terms given the size and beauty of the temple. As Craig Keener says, "The temple sported ostentatious wealth, and its officials would probably waste this widow's money."[7]

It is ironical that the temple - supposedly the representation of the very presence of God - had to gain from someone who had next to nothing. Perhaps it is in this sense that the religious leaders devoured the widows' belongings.

In light of this it is not surprising that immediately afterwards Jesus announced the upcoming destruction of the temple (21:5f). But of course the destruction of this religious centre had deeper reasons. In earlier passages Luke has been speaking of the failure of the Law-experts to interpret the Scriptures and recognise Jesus as the Messiah (see especially Luke 20:41-44). The chief priests and the Scribes failed to understand the Scriptures, and the widow's offering served as a penetrating illustration of that.

The question we should ask ourselves, as Christians in the affluent western world, is: Do we really understand the Scriptures and the heart of God towards the poor, the vulnerable and those who cannot fend for themselves?

Religion versus justice and mercy

Traditional evangelicals are characterised by their zeal to "get people saved" and live an ethical life. Many of them are educated, hard-working people with a decent job. The contemporary churches today have the same zeal for evangelism and moral living, and they are well known for their lively worship services and rapid numeric growth. Today not a few prominent church leaders openly proclaim their belief in prosperity and the blessings of God.[8] Many of them are well-to-do people with a positive attitude towards life.

As the church becomes more powerful, with increasing human and financial resources at its disposal, its leaders find themselves in a good position to speak up on moral issues. There is a strong determination to stand up for righteousness. Christians among growing churches are increasingly vocal about their stance against abortion, same-sex relationship, and embryonic stem-cell research.

It is true that God's moral ideal cannot be compromised, but in light of the foregoing study of Luke 20:45-21:4, we have to ask ourselves whether we really know God's heartbeat. The Pharisees and Scribes no doubt lived up to a high moral standard, but they failed to understand the Scriptures fully. Despite our zeal for ethical values, perhaps we have fallen short of acting justly, loving mercy and living humbly before God, as Micah 6:8 teaches us.

In our busyness to grow our churches, perhaps we have forgotten those who struggle financially in our midst. In our enthusiasm to organise the most lively worship services, run programs to meet our growth targets, and develop the best children programs, often we neglect those in need of special care.

That is, we don't have time for those in the too-hard-basket - the low-income single-parent households, the chronically sick who cannot get to church meetings, the mentally ill, the new migrants, the refugees, etc. Yes, we refer them to special welfare organisations or church departments, but in doing so we practically tell Christians not to get personally involved with the very people God cares for most.

Many of us have strong opinions about stem-cell research and abortion, but too few of us realise how unjust and harmful it is to lock up children in detention centres simply because they come from other countries. Christians are very concerned about any legislation regarding the rights of same-sex couples, but few are genuinely concerned about the HIV/AIDS pandemic raging around the globe - with 14 million children orphaned as a result today, and possibly 25 million in 2020 if nothing is done.[9]

It is true that several Scriptures refer to the issues of abortion and homosexuality, but any concordance will show the more extensive and numerous Bible references to God's concern for orphans (vulnerable children), aliens (migrants and refugees) and widows (those who cannot fend for themselves).

Anyone who has read Isaiah would not miss God's anger against the rulers who did not plead the cause of the fatherless and the widows (Isa 1:23). The LORD had enough of their sacrifices and offerings (1:11-12) - that is, their "worship services". Their religious festivals meant nothing if they did not seek justice and rescue the oppressed (1:17).

Are we like the Law-experts who failed to truly understand the Scriptures and missed out the very heartbeat of God for the poor and needy? Are our church systems and programs like the temple system, which devoured widows' houses while its intended function was to look after them? This question is particularly poignant in light of Jesus' judgement against the temple.

Do we only major on being "religious" but fail to do God's will - to stand on the side of the poor? For those of us who are ministers and leaders, do we fail to teach our people the heartbeat of God because we ourselves do not fully understand the Scriptures?

Luke paints a gloomy picture against the religious leaders of his days. But in the Book of Acts he brilliantly depicts the wonderful Christian community built by the disciples, whose genuine concern for the poor can be found at the very conception of the church (Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-35). The challenge for us is to choose between being religious leaders and being true disciples of Jesus.

Written by Siu Fung Wu - Copyright Reserved. Published by John Mark Ministries

[1] Darrell Bock, "Gospel of Luke" in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. Joel Green and Scot McKnight (Downers Grove: IVP, 1992), 506; Joel Green, The Gospel of Luke (New International Commentary of the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 1997), 640.
[2] Craig Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary of the New Testament (Downers Grove: IVP, 1993), 170.
[3] Green, The Gospel of Luke, 728.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Green, The Gospel of Luke, 727.
[6] Bock, "Gospel of Luke", 506.
[7] Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary, 246.
[8] See, for example, Brian Houston, You Need More Money (Castle Hill, NSW: Brian Houston Ministries, 1999).
[9] See World Vision Australia website - as at 23rd June 2004.

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