The Widow’s Mites

World MoneyOne evening, I watched a TV program that raised the issue, “What is money?” It is something I have asked myself many times. I suppose most everyone who uses automatic deposits might have a similar question. I receive a bank statement over the Internet and in it I find that some money deposited and some deducted all by some mysterious process. I don’t see the money in any form come or go. Money to me is theoretical. I have a theory it exists and the only way to prove my theory is to spend this imaginary money. Voila! It works!

Marcus_Aurelius_Denarius2

“Marcus Aurelius Denarius2” by Rasiel Suarez – Tantalus Coins, uploaded by Rasiel Suarez.* 

For centuries, money was backed by the accumulation of precious metals or was made from precious metals, for example, gold. In this country, however, President Nixon, in 1971, took our currency off the gold standard and turned it into fiat money; that is, currency not convertible into precious metals.

In the first century Palestine, while most people had little or no money with which to conduct business, the wealthy were awash in money of all sorts—Roman coins made of base metals were the most common. The Jews, however, had a financial system separate from Rome’s, used mostly to pay the temple tax or to provide money for charitable work.

The money put into the temple treasury, even by the wealthy, had to be Jewish coinage. The coin mostly used to pay the temple tax, called prutah[1]in Hebrew and valued at roughly twenty-fourth of a silver penny, is in English called a mite, which comes from the French word miete, meaning a crumb or morsel.

Widow's Mite

The Widow’s Mite

The prutah was the smallest in use among the Jews. The rule was that no person shall put less than two prutahs into the treasury.[2] In the story from Mark,[3] a poor widow could not give less than two mites,[4] and her poverty prevented her from giving more. Jesus noted that the rich cast many of these nearly worthless coins into the temple collection box, which was hardly a valuable gift but only a show of charity, not an act of charity. Jesus prefers the widow’s two mites to all the offerings made by the wealthy.

Christ’s observed:

  • What the wealthy do in public and what they do in private is equally known to God.
  • God observes the state and situation of people regardless of wealth or lack of wealth.
  • God, well acquainted with the poverty and dismal state of the widow, knew she had given her all.
  • The wealthy’s lack of a generous spirit in their giving.
  • God knows every penny we possess and always observes how we use our wealth.
  • Likewise, God also knows our poverty and distress, and those conditions can work for our good.

Jesus knew the motives of the rich men. He knew they mostly acted through vanity, self-love, interest, ambition, and hypocrisy. Even those that gave through love, charity, zeal for God’s glory, could have been more generous. However, no gift of charity is rejected. The motive of the gift, which may not be known by others, is known to God.

If I had millions of dollars to spare and I gave, let’s say, one-hundred million to my university with a requirement to name a building after me, the gift may seem charitable, but it is likely a gift of self-esteem rather than a gift of love. Further, let’s say I give a good sum of money to a charitable agency, volunteer on the agency’s behalf on many projects and then openly boast or complain about my gifts of treasure and time; I am no different than the rich men Jesus observed at the temple treasury.

As he and his students were watching the people coming to the treasury, Jesus seemed surprised by the devoutness of the poor widow. We also should be surprised. The impoverished woman had no need to give anything to the poor or pay the tax.

Years ago, a parish I served had a soup kitchen. There was no requirement to eat lunch there. The patrons were need not pass a means test; they needed not to pay for their meal, to listen to a homily, take a church tract, or answer the question, are you saved?  The ministry was only to feed people. It was the parish’s effort to serve the poor. There were never any news articles; no publicity about the soup kitchen ever hit the airwaves. The work was totally a work of love.

One day, I noticed a group of patrons gathering together outside the church. At first I thought people had a disagreement that might lead to violence. I went out to check on the group and to my surprise I found they were taking a collection to show gratitude for the meal they had just consumed. Among them, they raised a little over a dollar. It was a beautiful gift and such giving continued to occur among the poor and disadvantaged who ate with us daily at noon. Thus, their gift seems to have more value than any other donation received.

We learn from the story of the widow’s mite that all are people are equal. While it is easy to find differences between us—rich and poor, black and white, foreign or native—God looks upon the heart. The most unfortunate people have it in their power to make their mite as acceptable to the Lord, by a simplicity of intention, and purity of affection, as the millions given by the affluent. We might praise the wealthy men for their generosity who threw a handful of mites into the collection plate and looked at the poor widow’s gift as pointless, but we would be wrong. God is impartial. The wealthy men at the temple treasury give from their abundance. Their contribution is hardly noticeable to them. Their wealth is intact and probably increases from day to day by the labor of the poor. By comparison, the poor widow gave more than all the rich—she gave her whole life. The two coins, the two mites, were all that she had to provide for one day’s sustenance, and she could have no more until by her labor she had acquired another two mites. Her gift was an act of faith. She trusted God would provide as she had freely given.

For Jesus’ students, this was a lesson to the rich, who, because of covetousness, on the one hand, and luxury on the other gave little to God and the poor. Additionally, it was a lesson to the poor, who, through distrust of God’s providence, give nothing at all.

Our possessions are sanctified only by giving a portion to God. Through selfless giving what remains afterward is blessed. If the rich and the poor reflect seriously on this, the one will learn pity, the other liberality, and both are blessed. Be open to God’s call to be generous of heart and spirit. Time and treasure are only of value if one is willing to give from poverty and not from abundance.


*Licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Marcus_Aurelius_Denarius2.jpg#/media/File:Marcus_Aurelius_Denarius2.jpg

[1] Adam Clarke Commentaries, http://www.studylight.org/commentaries. I am grateful for the information provided in Clarke Commentaries on Mark 12. I have used the information liberally in preparing this essay.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Mark 12:41-44.

[4] The rule was that the temple tax was no less than two mites. Possibly, because of the widow’s poverty, she might have been exempted from paying any tax, but she decided to meet her faith obligation.

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