The widow’s great treasure

For years I have treated the story of the widow’s mite as an illustration of sacrificial giving. So remarkable is the exorbitance of her gift that even Jesus is astonished and calls his disciples over to see what she has done.

The truth is that this poor widow gave more to the collection than all the others put together. All the others gave what they’ll never miss; she gave extravagantly what she couldn’t afford – she gave her all. It’s the ultimate story of faith and trust.

However, I wonder if there is even more to it than that? Perhaps the larger sacrifice of the gift is even greater than her two small coins. It is not coincidental that the encounter comes directly after Jesus has warned the disciples about the teachers of the law: “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely” (Mark 12;38-40 NIV).

This is not a chance widow in the temple. Instead, she is one of those to whom Jesus referred in these verses. She has been made poor by the religious leaders as they have devoured her house and reduced her to nothing. Not just a destitute widow in desperate straits but one of many put into poverty by the men she esteemed. She is one who has suffered from the abuse of trust.

She gave it all to a corrupt organization with large overhead, big egos, and the very leaders who later that week would condemn Jesus to death. Why would anyone support that organization? If you were her giving advisor, what would you say to her? I would tell her it was a foolish gift.

Yet, here she is giving all that they had left her – two pennies – back to them. I cannot imagine that … and I wonder if that is also what startled Jesus. The scribes were making their noisy gifts from the abundance of what they had stolen, and she is giving all she had left to the very men who had robbed her. How can that be?

You may remember the scene in Les Miserable when Jean Valjean saves the life of Javert, the pitiless officer who has hunted him down for years. The shock of owing his life to such a man and unable to reconcile it with his sense of harsh justice drives him to take his own life rather than be in debt to Valjean. “This desperate man whom I have hunted. He gave me my life. He gave me freedom.” But it was freedom he could not understand or accept. How could anyone so mistreated choose mercy for someone so undeserving?

Just the same, how could a wronged widow release all she had in the world to those who had put her into poverty?

There is a Hindu tale of a traveler who stops for the night outside a village when a villager came running up to him.

“The stone! The stone! Give me the precious stone.

“What stone?” asked the traveler.

“Last night I dreamed that if I went to the outskirts of the village, I should find a traveler who would give me a precious stone that would make me rich forever.”

The traveler rummaged in his bag and pulled out a stone. “You probably mean this one,” he said, as he handed the stone over to the villager. “I found it on a forest path some days ago. You can certainly have it.”

The man gazed at the stone in wonder. It was a diamond, probably the largest diamond in the whole world, for it was as large as a person’s head. He took the diamond and walked away.

All night the villager tossed about in bed, unable to sleep. The next day, at the crack of dawn, he woke the traveler and said, “Give me the wealth that makes it possible for you to give this diamond away so easily.”

In the same way, the widow possessed the wealth that made it possible for her not only to give but to give all she had to those who had reduced her to poverty. As extraordinary as it was, it may not have been the gift of her last two pennies Jesus considered so remarkable. That was not the “more than all the others” he witnessed. Instead, it was the freedom to return everything remaining to the very people who had reduced her to nothing. It was the grace not only to release, but to absolve. That, I think, was her great treasure.

Artwork: The Widow’s Mite, James C. Christensen

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