The Widow’s Mite—True Generosity!
by Pastor George Van Alstine
A few years back, I observed an interesting family interaction in a parking lot outside Dodger Stadium. A boy, who looked to be about ten years old, accidentally dropped a coin onto the ground. He looked down and, when he noticed that it was a nickel, he didn’t bother to bend over to pick it up. His father had heard the coin hit the ground and observed his son’s reaction. He grabbed the boy by the arm, spun him around and began his “when-I-was-a-boy” speech about respecting the value of hard-earned money. The boy answered, “Aw Dad, it was only a nickel!” This really infuriated the father, and he forcefully marched him back to the fallen coin and said loudly, “Pick that up, Son, and don’t let me ever see you waste a nickel again!” By this time, a sizable audience had gathered, so Junior will probably remember this embarrassing lesson for the rest of his life.
Another embarrassing lesson is recorded in the Gospel account of an episode in Jesus’ life. We know it as the story of “The Widow’s Mite,” but it might also be called “The Embarrassment of the Rich Hypocrites”:
He 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.” (Mark 12:41-44)
Just before this incident, Jesus had been instructing his disciples about how misleading people’s appearance of spiritual superiority can be. He used as an example the Scribes, one of the privileged classes in their society:
“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearances say long prayers.” (Mark 12:38-40)
So Jesus was exposing a double offense – the rich were flaunting before the poor widow their large donations of money, and this was money which in some cases they had gotten by “devouring widows’ houses,” foreclosing mercilessly on unpaid debts. Meanwhile, the widow was doubly righteous, first by quietly suffering injustice, and secondly, by still being thankful to God. And her thankfulness was total: “everything she had, all she had to live on.”
I’ve noticed over the years of my ministry and community activity that poor people seem quicker to respond to other hurting people around them than more well-off people are. My personal observations have recently been reinforced by actual academic studies. In an article published in the August 2011 edition of the journal Current Directions in Psychological Sciences, Dr. Dacher Keltner, a professor at the University of CA at Berkeley, said his research team’s interviews demonstrated that rich people tend to live by an “ideology of self-interest, . . are less empathetic, less altruistic and generally more selfish.” Lower class interviewees made more eye contact, nodded their heads with interest and listened more carefully to the stories of people in need.
We’ve all heard of someone who is particularly generous, “He’ll give you the shirt off his back.” that’s quite graphic. We would be impressed if someone gave a shivering poor person a shirt from his closet. But this saying describes an even higher degree of generosity – if he gives you the shirt from his back, he no longer has a shirt to keep himself warm.
Jesus went a giant step beyond this; he didn’t give the shirt off his back to save us, he gave his back! (Read Isaiah50:6, 53:5, Matthew 27:26)