A closer look at the widow’s mite

These coins were believed to be the small prutah or half prutah issued during the Hasmonean or Maccabean dynasty.

Jan 26, 2019

By Anil Netto
Someone asked me the other day, “What is the widow’s mite?”

So I did some little research and found that the mite (actually lepta in Greek or minuta in Latin) was the smallest copper or bronze coin in Jewish currency in circulation in Palestine.

These coins were believed to be the small prutah or half prutah issued during the Hasmonean or Maccabean dynasty (130BC-40BC) or by Herod the Great and probably still in circulation well into the First Century AD.
Basically, this was very small change indeed.

The passage involving the widow’s mite can be found in Mark 12, which describes how Jesus observed people dropping their money into the temple treasury:

41 He sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the treasury, and many of the rich put in a great deal.
42 A poor widow came and put in two small coins, the equivalent of a penny.
43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, 'In truth I tell you, this poor widow has put more in than all who have contributed to the treasury;
44 for they have all put in money they could spare, but she in her poverty has put in everything she possessed, all she had to live on.

This is the passage we often look at in isolation.

But a few commentators have pointed out that what comes immediately before this passage is just as important:

38 In his teaching he said, ‘Beware of the scribes who like to walk about in long robes, to be greeted respectfully in the market squares,
39 to take the front seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at banquets;
40 these are the men who devour the property of widows and for show offer long prayers. The more severe will be the sentence they receive.’

Notice how Jesus criticised those who “devour the property of widows” — basically those who oppress, rip off, squeeze or tax the poor unduly – folks who could least afford it.

Again, this entire chapter should not be looked at in isolation. The widow’s offering took place soon after Jesus had wreaked havoc in the Temple. He had chased the money-changers who were profiting from the system by taxing and squeezing the Passover pilgrims, many of them peasants.

In Mark 11:
15 So they reached Jerusalem and he went into the Temple and began driving out the men selling and buying there; he upset the tables of the money changers and the seats of the dove sellers.

16 Nor would he allow anyone to carry anything through the Temple.

17 And he taught them and said, ‘Does not scripture say: My house will be called a house of prayer for all peoples? But you have turned it into a bandits’ den.’

18 This came to the ears of the chief priests and the scribes, and they tried to find some way of doing away with him; they were afraid of him because the people were carried away by his teaching.

Not surprisingly, after the money-changers incident, Jesus was not the most popular guy in town – at least among the scribes and temple leaders.

But that did not stop him from accusing the scribes as “men who devour the property of widows” soon after.

It is in this context that we should look at Jesus immediately calling his disciples over to show them the widow at the Temple treasury who had given all she had – which presumably was not much after her property had been “devoured”. And yet...

Why did Jesus call his disciples over? To show them what? A widow giving all she had? Sacrificial giving to the extreme?

The widow had given faithfully, perhaps in the hope that God’s kingdom would be realised – the Good News to the Poor.

Or was there also a deeper message?

No doubt, the scribes and leaders of the Temple thought they could impress God with their beautiful Temple and blood sacrifices. But as Scripture tells us, God values Justice and Mercy and Compassion more than empty and meaningless sacrifices.

Notice what happens after the incident of the widow offering her two coins. In the next chapter of Mark 13:

1 As he was leaving the Temple one of his disciples said to him, “Master, look at the size of those stones! Look at the size of those buildings!”

2 And Jesus said to him, “You see these great buildings? Not a single stone will be left on another; everything will be pulled down.”

Here you can see the disciples clearly impressed with the majestic grandeur of the Temple — and indeed it must have been a sight to behold.

But obviously, Jesus did not share their enthusiasm. Given what had happened with the moneychangers, his criticism of those who devour the property of widows and his contemplation of the widow who was giving all that she had left to the Temple, he knew exactly how the Temple was financed and constructed. He knew who had been burdened and who had profited from it all.

The Temple was also a symbol of the tacit cooperation among the imperial overlords in the Roman Empire, the local elite rulers and the religious leaders – all in a cosy, even if at times uneasy, relationship. Power, money, greed, wealth… and oppression of the poor. Perhaps little has changed.

So there seems to be much more going on in the incident of the widow’s humble offering.

And there are lessons for us today as we reflect on society and discern who has oppressed the poor and who has profited from their misery.

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