Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17 – Ruth and Boaz give birth to Obed.
1 Kings 17:8-16
— Widow of Zarephath

Psalm 127
Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain. Sons are a blessing.
Psalm 146
– The Lord watches over strangers, and upholds orphans and widows.

Hebrews 9:24-28Christ did not enter into a sanctuary made with hands, but into heaven itself.

Mark 12:38-44
Beware of the Scribes who devour widow’s houses. The widow’s two copper coins.


Before I get into the story, I’d like to share a few stories about generosity. Our brains are wired for stories. Telling stories about generosity may be more effective than telling people what to do. The story of the widow’s coins is one of the stories Jesus told. Here are some more:

Stories of Generosity: Benjamin Franklin’s actual Estate Plan

It’s not exactly the widow’s coins, but the story of how Benjamin Franklin’s charitable giving spanned two centuries after his death is inspiring. Telling the story of Franklin’s generosity may be just the thing to spark our people’s imaginations. READ IT HERE.

Stories of Generosity: John Wesley

John Wesley’s (1703-1791) story is a bit different than Benjamin Franklin’s story. Wesley is best known for being the founder of the Methodist Church. As his income grow significantly, he continued to live at his normal standard of living, and gave away much more than he spent. It is an inspiring story. READ IT HERE. 

Stories of Generosity: Gander on 9/11

I told this story earlier this year, around September 11, but if you did not use it then, use it now. It is a heart-warming story of generosity, from both sides of the equation. READ IT HERE.

The Sharing Experiment (Video)

What happens when one child gets a sandwich and another doesn’t? How do children respond? I also shared this heartwarming video earlier this year. WATCH IT HERE.

Get Service (Video)

This video is more about generosity of time and how we see the world through new lenses. WATCH IT HERE.


The Widow’s Coins

The Old Testament reading from the Hebrew Bible is either Ruth and Boaz, or the Widow of Zarephath. I would suggest that if you are going to preach on the Widow’s Coins, the latter option fits more nicely. It is astonishing how much concern the Bible has for widows. A quick word search at in the NRSV renders 126 references to “widows.” (And 134 for “aliens.”) That’s a lot.

Evangelical preacher Rick Warren had a stewardship conversion of sorts, that led him to reverse tithe (see Wesley article above). True to his Baptist upbringing, he went to Scripture and saw something he had not seen before. An October 2005 article in Christianity Today, “Purpose Driven in Rwanda,” by Timothy C. Morgan, reported:

“Around this time,” Warren says, he was driven to re-examine scripture with “new eyes.” What he found humbled him. “I found those 2,000 verses on the poor. How did I miss that? I went to Bible college, two seminaries, and I got a doctorate. How did I miss God’s compassion for the poor? I was not seeing all the purposes of God. The church is the body of Christ. The hands and feet have been amputated and we’re just a big mouth, known more for what we’re against.” Warren found himself praying, “God, would you use me to re-attach the hands and the feet to the body of Christ, so that the whole church cares about the whole gospel in a whole new way—through the local church?”

In an interview with Oprah, recounted in an NPR article, Warren said,

I had to repent… I had to say, “God, I’m sorry, I can’t think of the last time I thought of widows and orphans.”

Such is the plight of pop Christianity today, which can tend toward a self-help gospel. It’s about fire insurance from hell, or “pie in the sky when you die,” as Anthony Campolo often says.

How does your church minister to widows?

One of my favorite commentaries on Mark is Ben Witherington III’s The Gospel of Mark, A Socio-rhetorical Commentary. Pricey, but worth the price. Witherington points out a pattern in Mark’s stories:

  1. Jesus is approached by the religious authorities
  2. They challenge him with a question regarding authority
  3. Jesus poses a counter question which reveals their own priorities and loyalties
  4. The opponents respond
  5. Jesus answers the original question

He calls this Jesus’ “sandwich technique,” what my New Testament professors called an inclusio. In general, the religious leaders want to know by what authority Jesus is doing the things he is doing, including healing, preaching, forgiving and his actions in the Temple.

In my introduction to the Gospel of Mark, Mark moves from Galilee, to Jesus’ Journey to Jerusalem, to Jesus in Jerusalem, to the Passion and Crucifixion. These are the four major bodies of material in Mark’s gospel. Mark 12 is in the Jerusalem section (11:1-13:37), prior to the little apocalypse (Mark 13). Most of this material takes place in the Temple Court.

By the time we reach today’s story of the Widow’s Coins, the questions are over. They have been asked, and Jesus’ opponents appear to have been “silenced” or outmaneuvered (11:33, 12:12). Jesus has just dealt with the question of the Greatest Commandment. There was much dispute in early Judaism about ranking the 613 commandments. The scribe did not raise a hypothetical question. Jesus answers with the Shema, the morning prayer for every observant Jew from at least the second century B.C. The scribe seems impressed and moved by Jesus answer of love. This is the only place in Mark where a scribe agrees with Jesus.

I think it is vitally important, given the infection of anti-Semitism in the world, one of oldest bigotry, given Luther’s anti-Semitism, and given the recent shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, that we continue to be very careful not to misrepresent, or allow our people to misunderstand, Jesus’ relationship to his own religious community. He did not oppose “the Jews.” He was one. His beef seems to be with the leaders of the Temple in Jerusalem of his time. He is calling them to a pure form of Judaism. Consider reading the ELCA’s repudiation of Luther’s writings on the Jews, and Eric Gritsch’s book Martin Luther’s Anti-Semitism, Against His Better Judgment. Learn more here.

While the questions are over, Jesus is still responding to them in 12:35ff. He goes on the offensive. Witherington calls 12:38-40 “a rebuke to scribes who love perks.” They like their status, which they tap into by way of their long white robes and position. Accordingly, they get great seats in the synagogue, in front of the Torah. An observant Jew would give them choice seating at wedding banquets and other big events.

Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.

Malachi 3:5

Those who are charged with being guardians of widows’ estates have become profiteers. Devouring widows’ houses means cheating them out of their due. He is accusing them of extortion. This would undoubtedly land him in hot water. Calling out corruption doesn’t usually go smoothly.

So Jesus contrasts the sketchy religious leaders with a poor widow at the Temple treasury. Here is the text:

38 As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 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. 44 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 not only contrasts the religious leaders with this widow, he also the contrasts the rich in verse 41 with the poor widow in verse 42.

Many rich folks are putting significant sums into the offering plate. This impresses people. Someone of means writes a big check to a cause. We’re impressed. But what if the amount is .05% of their income? The minimum wage person who wrote a smaller check for 10% of income got overlooked. Not so impressive, but significantly more generosity. One person made a generous, but relatively painless gesture. The second person made a personal sacrifice that affected the bottom line.

Enter the poor widow. She gives two “lepta.” Mark has to explain to his hearers what this is. They do not use this coin. A lepta is half the value of a quadrans, which is 1/64th of a denarius, which is a day’s wage. So 1/128th of a day’s wage, an infinitesimally insignificant amount.

As Jesus made a child a model for servanthood, Jesus makes this poor widow a model for generosity. Proportionally, she has given more. This is why we so often talk of percentages.

The widow, in fact, could have given one coin and kept the other. 50%. In Jesus’ view, she has given more than all the others, combined. She gave 100%, everything she had. They gave out of their abundance. She gave out of her poverty.

Jesus calls out false piety, boasting and self-indulgence. Witherington:

Jesus’ special concern and admiration for women is perhaps nowhere more striking juxtaposed with his disgust over certain groups of privileged and supposed pious men than here…

This is not a story about law. A story about law would be a story about the tithe. This is a story of love and grace, which always lead us to give more than the law demands. The law does not inspire. When you appeal to people legally, they will only do the least that is required to make the grade. When we love however, we pour ourselves out. Jesus is pointing to such love.

The preacher can tap into this gracefulness by telling stories of lavish generosity, stories like those above, but also personal stories that can be told in the first person. And of course, we have our master story, of Jesus who gives it all, even his life.