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)
If you’re thinking to yourself, “Dr. MacArthur must be about to encourage us to give sacrificially,” that’s understandable. Almost universally, that is how this passage gets applied: Believers should give sacrificially in the same way that this widow gave.
But is that really what this passage is teaching? In order to begin answering this question, we need to look at the context.
This is Wednesday of Passion Week. This is the final week of our Lord’s life. On Monday, He entered the city. On Tuesday, He cleansed the temple. All day Wednesday, He has been teaching the multitudes in the temple area and has been confronted by the false religious leaders of Judaism who have endeavored to trap Him in His words so that they might have some cause to have Him executed. He has thwarted them every time with His answers, so that they’re going to have to lie and fabricate a reason for the Romans to execute Him on Friday. They’re done asking questions.
At this point on Wednesday, after a long day of teaching, He no longer addresses the fickle crowd that hailed Him as Messiah and will shortly cry for His blood. He has no more to say to the crowds in general. He has no more to say to the false religious leaders. He has denounced them and given them and the crowds His last invitation.
In fact, immediately after this episode with the widow, Jesus begins speaking about judgment. The time of invitation is over. The ministry of our Lord in these three years has come to its end. No more gospel invitations. No more clarifications to the crowds and to the leaders. He’s finished. And their final assessment is that He is not the Messiah they wanted, and they reject Him.
And so, starting in verse 5, Jesus gives a long message on the judgment that will begin in 70 A.D. with the destruction of the temple and will continue until our Lord comes again. And just before Luke 21 starts, at the very end of Luke 20, Jesus already begins speaking judgment with His words, “Beware of the scribes.”
But between this condemnation of the false leaders and the pronunciation of judgment that has lasted for 2,000 years, there is this little vignette about a widow dropping two copper pennies into an offering receptacle in the temple.
The question is, what does this have to do with anything? Why does Jesus inject this moment of reflection on a widow giving an offering in the temple between a diatribe against false leaders and all the people that follow them and a pronunciation of judgment on the temple, on the city, and on the nation? Why is this here?
As I mentioned before, almost all commentators tell us that Jesus is presenting this widow as an example of true worship in the midst of the false worship that was dominating the temple. They tell us that this is a small, beautiful story of a good deed in the midst of ugliness. It gives us an example we should follow of “giving until it hurts,” contrasted with the selfishness of the spiritual leaders. This is, universally, how the passage gets explained.
Scholars agree that the lesson of this passage has to do with giving, though the exact details of interpretation vary. Here are some of the variations I’ve seen:
Virtually everyone who writes about this text waxes eloquent on some combination of the above ideas. But at this point, I’ll confess something to you: In spite of the popularity of these views, none of these explanations make any sense to me. In fact, I believe that all of these interpretations are being imposed on the text.
You will ask, “Why do you say they’re imposed?” I believe they’re imposed because Jesus doesn’t actually make any of these points in the passage. He doesn’t say anything about percentages or attitudes, and He doesn’t encourage His disciples to go and do likewise. He doesn’t say the rich give too little, and He doesn’t say the widow gave the right amount. He doesn’t say the rich had a bad attitude or that the widow had a good one. The only thing He says is, “The widow gave more than everybody.”
All we know about the virtue of the widow’s action is her external behavior. We don’t know what her motive was. For all we know, her gift was no more or less good, bad, indifferent, humble, proud, selfish, or unselfish than anybody else’s gift. There is no judgment made on her act as to its true character. She could be acting out of devotion. Or she could be acting out of fear. We don’t know, because Jesus doesn’t say anything. Jesus doesn’t draw any conclusions, doesn’t develop any principles, doesn’t command anything, doesn’t define anything.
Why does Jesus say nothing about all of that? I believe it’s because none of that matters.
I believe that if Jesus wanted to say anything about the nature of giving or worship here, He would have done so. If He wanted to, He could have said, “You need to give like the widow, she had a good attitude and she gave a maximum percentage and what she had left behind was little. This is the kind of sacrificial giving that I’m after.” But He doesn’t say that, because I don’t believe the story is designed to teach any of those things.
The only obvious detail of this story is that the widow gave everything. So if we wanted to impose a lesson about giving on this passage, the lesson would be, “God expects you to give 100% of what you have.”
But I think this passage isn’t about giving at all. So next time, we’ll be looking at the real lesson we ought to draw from this widow’s story.
This post is based on a sermon Dr. MacArthur preached in 2007, title “Abusing the Poor.”
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