The story is known as “The Widow’s Mite.” A poor widow gives her last two coins as an offering to her house of worship. This tiny sum is her “mite” — the only thing she has left to give. It is perhaps not a coincidence that the common lectionary brings this story before us in November, the season of church pledge drives. I can see the stewardship campaign slogans now: “Every little mite counts.” “Let’s be like the widow, and give God all we’ve got!”
But let’s be honest: would you encourage an impoverished neighbor to put her last penny into your collection plate? Would Jesus? Did Jesus?
Let’s look again.
The story takes place in the Jerusalem Temple – the center of Israel’s political and religious life, where the elite meet. (Think: Washington Cathedral.) Both the Temple and its leaders must have been a pretty impressive sight to a bunch of Galilean fishermen. But Jesus warns his disciples: do not be taken in by all the pomp and circumstance. Beware of the scribes, with their expensive wardrobes and expansive speeches. They may occupy the places of honor at the banquet, but meanwhile they are devouring widows’ houses.
No sooner has Jesus spoken these words, than one of those very widows approaches the Temple treasury box, and places her last two coins inside it. “Look at this woman,” he says. “This poor widow has put in more than anyone else here. For all of the rest of them have contributed out of their wealth; but out of her poverty she has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
Jesus asks his disciples to take note of the widow’s sacrifice, but he neither praises nor condemns it. He merely points it out, and contrasts it with the sacrifices of the wealthy and powerful – which, he implies, are no sacrifice at all.
There is a tension, in this story about the widow’s mite. Do we commend her for her sacrifice, or do we condemn those who so lightly demand it of her?
It’s a tension similar in some ways to the tension that I sometimes feel surrounding our national celebration of Veterans Day. For as much as we honor the courage and sacrifice of our soldiers, still we feel that nagging doubt, about the justice of our having demanded such sacrifice. There are souls among us still, who have given their all, only to find themselves like the poor widow, with nothing left to live on, or live for. Today, over ten percent of our former servicemen and women are homeless, and suicide claims the lives of more soldiers than combat.
There is a tension, then, in our celebration of Veteran’s Day. Do we commend our soldiers for their sacrifice, or do we condemn the scribes of our own day, who would so lightly demand it of them?
This, after all, is the meaning of stewardship: the proper use of that which is not properly ours, but God’s. Like a widow’s mite. Or a soldier’s life.
Jesus does not tell his disciples whether the widow was right or wrong, to make such a sacrifice. But he draws our attention to her. In the midst of all the splendor of the Temple, in the midst of all the pomp and circumstance of national celebration, Jesus’ eye is on her. And he tells his disciples: don’t overlook her.
Don’t overlook her, for she has given everything.