Last time, we looked at the traditional way the story of the poor widow in Luke 21 has been interpreted. Today, I want to show you what this passage is really about. And I want to begin by asking a question: Do you think Jesus was pleased with the widow’s decision to give all she had?
Commentators have widely assumed that Jesus saw her action as a good thing. But the passage doesn’t say that. In the story itself, Jesus gives no indication of His opinion. But let me tell you something. I think what the widow did displeased Jesus immensely. I think it angered Him.
Let me put it this way. How would you feel in this situation? You’re a person who loves the Lord, who loves people, and who cares about people’s needs. How would you feel if you saw a destitute widow who only had two coins left to buy food for her next meal give those two coins to a religious system?
I believe you would say, “Something is wrong with that system, if that system is taking the last two coins out of a widow’s hand.” You’d feel sick about it. You’d feel terrible. You would be repulsed. Any religion that is built on the back of the poor is a false religion. What a sad, misguided, woeful, poor, victimized lady. This is a tragic, painful moment.
I think that’s exactly how Jesus saw it. He saw that corrupt system taking the last two pennies out of a widow’s pocket. Perhaps in her desperation, the widow hoped that her two coins would buy some blessing. Contemporary “evangelists” call this seed faith. They say, “Give me your money and God will multiply it back to you.”
But God doesn’t want a widow to give up her last two cents. Nowhere in Scripture can you find Him endorsing that. That’s the last thing God would want a widow to do. Look at Matthew 15 for a moment:
Then some Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do Your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.”
And He answered and said to them, “Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say, ‘Whoever says to his father or mother, “Whatever I have that would help you has been given to God,” he is not to honor his father or his mother.’ And by this you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition.” (Matthew 15:1-6)
See, what they had done was create a false religious system that transgressed the commandment of God. They were supposed to honor their parents by supporting them when they had material needs. But to get around that and parade their righteousness, instead of giving to their mother or father they would say, “Oh, we’re giving to God,” and leave their mother and father destitute. And so by the tradition of giving money to God that belonged to the needy, they violated the law of God. The system that had developed in Judaism abused poor people.
For God, basic human needs come before religious offerings. God’s law was not designed to impoverish people, but to help them. Man was not made for the law, but the law was made for man.
False religion, though, has a very different heartbeat. At the center of false religion is the treasury. It’s all about the money. In Luke 16:14 the Pharisees are called “lovers of money.” And Jesus said of the Sadducees that they had turned the temple into a “robbers’ den” (Matthew 21:13). And immediately before observing this scene with the widow, Jesus denounced the scribes for “devouring widows’ houses” (Luke 20:47). How can we not make the connection that Jesus hates what happens to this widow in the very next chapter?
This widow was part of a system that took the last two cents out of her hand, probably on the pretense that this was necessary to please God, to purchase her salvation, and to bring her blessing. But really, the gifts only served to make the system’s leaders wealthy. And meanwhile, these leaders were abusing the very ones who God had promised to care for and avenge:
You shall not afflict any widow or orphan. If you afflict him at all, and if he does cry out to Me, I will surely hear his cry; and My anger will be kindled, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless. (Exodus 22:22-24)
Of course Jesus was angry. Widows were being abused in the name of God, in God’s house. The system had cost this widow her life; she would go home and die, because she had nothing left to live on. Jesus isn’t commending her. Jesus is observing the corruption of a system that is going to be destroyed because of God’s judgment. And that’s why He says of the temple immediately after, “The days will come in which there will not be left one stone upon another which will not be torn down” (Luke 21:6).
You know, this sort of abuse has continued on throughout history under different systems. The Catholic Church abused the poor by building massive, ornate cathedrals from the money of the poor, destitute, impoverished people to whom they were selling indulgences. The history of the Roman Catholic Church is a history of massive, unbelievable wealth at the top that’s taken out of the pockets of the destitute and the poor trying to buy their way into heaven.
The same is also true of prosperity gospel preachers. You know who the largest segment of givers are to those ministries? Single women. These women are desperate for healing, desperate for financial stability, and they are told they’ll receive that if they send in their money.
That is not true religion. What did James say true religion looks like?
Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (James 1:27)
True religion does not abuse the poor. It ministers generously and graciously to their needs.
Our God cares for the downcast and the poor. When Jesus came, He fed hungry crowds and healed the sick. He came to pour out love and grace, and He came to offer an easy yoke that contrasted sharply with the wicked abuse of false religious systems. And He called His church to care likewise for the distressed among us.
This post is based on a sermon Dr. MacArthur preached in 2007, titled “Abusing the Poor.”
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