Christians sometimes have misinterpreted and misapplied certain texts from the Bible. This can be out of innocent ignorance, or it can be for more ignoble reasons.
For example, Christians often take Jeremiah 29:11 as a promise of individual prosperity and comfort, when in reality this passage is part of God’s promise to his covenant people as a whole while they prepare to enter 70 years of exile in Babylon.
Another passage I believe gets severely misinterpreted, especially by preachers, is Luke 21:1-4, the story of “the widow’s mite.”
“And he looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury. And he saw a poor widow putting in two small copper coins. And he said, ‘Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all of them; for they all out of their surplus put into the offering; but she out of her poverty put in all that she had to live on’” (Luke 21:1-4 NASB).
Most interpreters take this passage as a paradigm of “sacrificial giving.” Jesus is lifting up this impoverished widow as an example of how to give financially to the church. “It’s not about how much you give; it’s about how sacrificially you give.” “It’s not about the amount in the plate; it’s about the attitude in your heart.” And so it goes.
However, I believe this fundamentally misunderstands the point of this passage. I think it is mistaken and unwise to preach the text in this way.
Context is everything when interpreting the Bible, and this passage’s context is usually ignored. When this story takes place, Jesus is in the process of fiercely denouncing the temple and its leadership.
In the verses immediately prior to our passage, Jesus says: “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, who devour widows’ houses, and for appearance’s sake offer long prayers. These will receive greater condemnation” (20:46-47).
And immediately after our passage, this exchange takes place: “And while some were talking about the temple, that it was adorned with beautiful stones and votive gifts, he said, ‘As for these things which you are looking at, the days will come in which there will not be left one stone upon another which will not be torn down’” (21:5-6). Jesus then launches into the Olivet Discourse, in which he foretells the way God will judge and destroy the temple.
The historical and cultural context is vital, too. The temple treasury served two purposes. First, it provided the economic means to keep the temple running and support its workers. Second—and this is key—it was meant to provide economic support for the poor, for widows, etc.
The real meaning
Is Jesus commending this widow for her sacrificial giving and piety? He might be; he might not be. That’s not really the point. It is impossible to understand this passage rightly without recognizing its place within Jesus’ condemnation of the temple and its leadership.
This widow has been bankrupted and driven near the point of death by a system that is supposed to care for her and protect her (verse 4). This woman has been economically exploited by the temple and its leaders. This story provides a graphic example of the scribes “devouring widows’ houses.” When Jesus sees this, it’s the last straw.
Jesus pronounced God’s judgment on the temple and its leadership for a number of sins, including the exploitation of the poor and widows. Even if Jesus intended to praise the widow for her behavior, that is not the whole meaning of this passage. If the widow’s piety is in view, it serves as a contrast with the scribes’, further highlighting the temple’s failure.
This passage is not a simple commendation of sacrificial giving; it is part of God’s condemnation of religion that neglects and exploits the poor. And lest you think this is a “liberal, Marxist” interpretation of the passage, consider that preachers no less conservative than John MacArthur have argued this is the correct reading of the text.
Preaching “the widow’s mite”
Popular American preaching of this passage almost always interprets it solely as a paradigm of financial giving. This passage usually is trotted out during giving campaigns. Sometimes, this is well-intentioned, such as for giving to missions. Other times, it is openly exploitative, such as prosperity preachers promising fictional “blessings” in exchange for money.
As I said above, I believe it is mistaken and unwise to ignore the wider context when preaching Luke 21:1-4. Preachers and teachers always should place this text in the context of Jesus’ condemnation of the temple and its leaders. To mention only the contested meaning that Jesus is praising the widow does not do justice to the passage.
Moreover, consider the poorest members of your church. Imagine you’re preaching this text in the popular fashion, and impoverished people in your congregation hear you telling them they need to give all they have left to live on. You may cause them to feel shame for not giving enough when they barely have enough to get by, while also ignoring the church’s responsibility to care for them.
Should we give sacrificially? Absolutely. This widow’s example can serve to confront and convict those of us who are wealthier yet who give only a minute fraction of our income, if anything at all. But we should never forget the condemnation and judgment Jesus pronounces on religious systems and leaders who squeeze cash out of those in poverty.
Joshua Sharp is a Master of Divinity student and graduate assistant in the Office of Ministry Connections at Truett Seminary in Waco, Texas. The views expressed are those solely of the author.