90. The Poor Widow's Offering (Luke 20:45-21:4)

Audio (19:24)
Gospel Parallels §212

James J. Tissot, detail of 'The Widow's Mite' (1886-94)
James J. Tissot, detail of 'The Widow's Mite' (1886-94), gouache on gray wove paper, Brooklyn Museum, New York.

"20:45  While all the people were listening, Jesus said to his disciples, 46  'Beware of the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted in the marketplaces and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. 47  They devour widows' houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. Such men will be punished most severely.'
21:1  As he looked up, Jesus saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. 2  He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. 3  'I tell you the truth,' he said, 'this poor widow has put in more than all the others. 4  All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.'" (Luke 20:45-21:4, NIV)

Ever since Jesus has approached Jerusalem, Luke's Gospel records one confrontation after another. These few verses about the widow contributing her meager offering come to us like a breath of fresh air -- and a lesson from which we disciples can learn.

Recently, the confrontations have been practically non-stop:

  • The Pharisees criticize Jesus' disciples for their praise at the Triumphal entry (19:39)
  • Jesus drives out the sellers from the Temple (19:45-46)
  • The chief priests, the teachers of the law (scribes), and leaders constantly plot to kill him (19:47-48)
  • People challenge his authority to teach (20:1-8)
  • People challenge him about paying taxes to Caesar (20:20-26)
  • Sadducees challenge him about the resurrection and marriage (20:27-40)

I have included a few verses from Chapter 20 to show the extreme contrast between the wealth and pride of Jesus' adversaries and the simple piety of the poverty-stricken widow:

Beware the Teachers of the Law (Luke 20:45-47)

"While all the people were listening, Jesus said to his disciples, 'Beware of the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted in the marketplaces and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows' houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. Such men will be punished most severely.'" (20:45-47)

The teachers of the law are probably the same group as the Scribes and Pharisees. Jesus teaches his own disciples to be wary around them and wary of becoming like them. The word translated "beware" is Greek prosechō, "to be in a state of alert, be concerned about, care for, take care." Here it means, "beware of, be on one's guard against something."906 In Luke, Jesus characterizes these "teachers of the law" in six ways (perhaps a condensation of the "seven woes" against the Pharisees in Matthew 23).

  1. They like to walk around in long, flowing robes. The word "long robe" or "flowing robe" is Greek stolē, "robe" especially "a long, flowing robe."907 We get our English word "stole" from this Greek word. This long robe is probably the long, flowing garment of the learned, called the tallith.908 In Matthew, Jesus observes, "Everything they do is done for man to see..." (Matthew 23:5). The point here is their love of being seen and recognized as scholars. The pride of scholarship is still alive and well.
  2. They love to be greeted in the marketplaces. The term "Rabbi" means "great one." Jesus warned his disciples against pride of titles (Matthew 23:7-11). How many clergymen insist on proper titles? This insistence is not often a mark of humility but of pride.
  3. They love to have important seats in the synagogue meetings. A seat on "the platform" keeps one in view and emphasizes one's importance. For those leading a service, sitting up in front smooths the flow of the service, but how many church leaders want a spot on the platform for the wrong reasons?
  4. They love the spot of the honored guest at banquets, beside the master of the house or the host.
  5. They devour widows' houses. Perhaps their position of trust as leaders or judges tempts them to take advantage of the most defenseless members of society -- widows. Katesthiō means "to eat up ravenously, eat up, consume, devour, swallow," and is used figuratively as "destroy, consume, waste, or rob." Here it may mean appropriating widows' houses or estates in an unethical manner.909 Jesus' Parable of the Unjust Judge (18:1-8) was probably recognizable to his hearers. Perhaps Jesus is referring to a continuing scandal perpetrated by unscrupulous but pious Pharisees.
  6. For show they pray long prayers. The words "for a show" translate Greek prophasis, "falsely alleged motive, pretext, ostensible reason, excuse." Here it means, "for a pretext, for appearance' sake."910 I don't know about you, but I've heard my share of long prayers, prayed only to impress people, not God.

This is a scathing indictment of the "teachers of the law." Why did Jesus warn his disciples of them? For fear that the leaders of the Christian church would become corrupted by pride, greed, and hypocrisy. My dear friends, may God deliver us disciples from our temptations and sins.

The Temple Treasury (Luke 21:1)

The Temple in Jesus' Day (larger diagram)

Having said this to his disciples out loud in the presence of his enemies, we read:

"As he looked up, Jesus saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury." (21:1)

Once before, Jesus has contrasted a proud Pharisee with a repentant tax collector praying in the temple (18:9-14). Now he contrasts the rich with the poor. The word "(temple) treasury" is Greek gazophylakion, "a place for storing valuables, treasure room, treasury," probably here "contribution box." According to the Mishnah, there were in the temple thirteen such trumpet-shaped receptacles.911 Some of these in the Court of the Women Jesus can observe from his seat in the temple.

People presumably are putting their offerings into the mouth of the trumpet; then the offerings drop down into the collection box. The word "putting" (NIV) or "casting" (KJV) in verses 1 and 2 is Greek ballō. The basic meaning is "throw," but a secondary meaning which drops the idea of forceful casting is: "to put or place something in a location, put, place, apply, lay, bring."912

The Poor Widow's Offering (Luke 21:2)

"He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins." (21:2)

How did Jesus know how much she puts in? Probably supernaturally. He isn't close enough to see the exact coins she is depositing. The word translated "very small cooper coin" (NIV) or "mite" (KJV) is Greek leptos, "small, thin, light," which refers to a small copper coin, 1/128 of a denarius, something between a penny and a mill.913 If you're confused by the Roman system of coins, here is a comparison chart.914

  • lepton (Jewish) - bronze, 2 lepta = 1 quadrans, 1/128 denarius
  • quadrans - copper, 4 quadrans = 1 as, 1/64 denarius
  • as (Gk. assarion) - copper, 4 as = 1 sestertius, 1/16 denarius
  • sestertius - bronze, 4 sesteria = 1 denarius, 1/4 denarius
  • denarius - silver, 1 denarius = 1 day's labor in Jesus' day

Lepton (face and obverse) minted during the governship of Pontius Pilate

Photograph (larger than actual size) of both sides of a lepton from Judea minted by Pontius Pilate, procurator under Tiberius during the time of Jesus' ministry. It bears the Latin inscription TIBEPOY KAICAP, "Tiberius Caesar" with a wreath on the other side.

Considering that a denarius is the common pay for a day's work in Jesus' era, a letpon is just a tiny, tiny portion. If a laborer can earn US $100 to $200 in our day, then 1/128 of that would be 75 cents to $1.50. Two lepta appears to have been the minimum lawful amount of a temple contribution.915

More than All the Others (Luke 21:3-4)

The widow gave a very small offering, perhaps, but I've known many, many people -- much better off than the widow -- who put in $1 when the plate is passed and feel good about themselves. But for the widow, this $1.50 is all she has.

"'I tell you the truth,' he said, 'this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.'" (21:3-4)

This $1.50 represents buying her next meal. She is destitute, probably living off the charity of her neighbors. She has just a tiny bit in her possession, but she wants to give it. No matter that she won't have food for the evening meal. She wants to give it.

People are watching the rich ostentatiously depositing their large offerings. But no one marks the poverty-stricken widow, who reached into her rags to withdraw these two thin copper coins and deposit them into the collection box. No one sees the look of joy on her face as she gives to her Lord the little she has. No one sees. No one notices.

But God notices. God's Son notices. And he says to his disciples -- "Did you see that!?" They look over where he is pointing. All they see is a tired old widow shuffling away from the collection box.

"She gave more than all of those rich people put together," Jesus tells them, and they look at him in astonishment. $1.50 vs. thousands of dollars? They don't say it, but they must think that Jesus is seriously mistaken. Daft, maybe.

But he continues. "All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on" (21:4). Jesus is thinking about proportional giving.

The word "wealth" (NIV) or "abundance" (KJV) is Greek perisseuō, "to be in abundance, abound."916 It is used in contrast to "need" (NIV) or "penury" that translate the Greek noun hysterēma, "the lack of what is needed or desirable, frequently in contrast to abundance, need, want, deficiency."917 The word translated "live on" (NIV) or "living" (KJV) is Greek bios, "life" and the derived meaning, "resources needed to maintain life, means of subsistence."918 (We get our words "biology," "biotics," "biosphere," etc. from bios.)

Proportional Giving, Sacrificial Giving, Faithful Giving

I see three lessons for disciples in the brief story of this simple, pious widow:

1. Proportional Giving. Jesus is teaching us that how much we give is related to how much we have. Earlier, Jesus had taught his disciples, "From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked" (Luke 12:48). This principle of proportional giving is at the root of the tithe (10% giving to the Lord) taught in the Old Testament. Paul reiterates this principle to the Corinthian church: "On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income..." (1 Corinthians 16:2).

2. Sacrificial Giving. Jesus doesn't tell the woman to keep her money, that God doesn't really need it. He lets her give and his heart swells with pride for this lady. If he stops her, he deprives her of the blessing of giving to God. So he lets her do it. We don't win extra points with God when we give sacrificially. This is not a contest. But know that when you make sacrifices for God, he is watching. It doesn't matter if no one else sees or knows. It is better that they do not. But you may count on the fact that God sees and knows your giving. Jesus promises, "Your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you" (Matthew 6:4).

3. Faith-filled Giving. The third lesson I see here is that we ourselves should not despise our small gifts to God. Sometimes we fall under the worldly spell that "bigger must be better." That's not true of our giving to God. We are to give what we are able, whether small or great. If you've ever been poor, then you know that it is easy to feel, "My small gift won't make any difference. It won't matter." But that's not true. It does matter. It matters to your Heavenly Father who loves you.

It is also faith-filled when you give, not knowing exactly how God will provide for you after you give. I'm not encouraging foolish giving, but faith-filled giving, giving proportionately to your income and expecting God to meet your needs, with more-than-enough to be able to give again (2 Corinthians 9:6-11). The tithe is a good guideline for giving, if you are just getting started stretching your faith. And wonderful promises come along with this practice (Malachi 3:6-12).

Motivations for Giving

It is a fact, at least in America, that the poor give a substantially larger proportion of their income to the Lord's work than the wealthy. Why is this? I believe that the poor tend to give out of love, while the wealthy tend to give out of duty. The poor give when it hurts. The wealthy seldom give enough so that it ever hurts.

Comfortably wealthy people tend to see their "large" dollar-amount gifts as significant, and can use them as leverage for power. It is common to hear of so-called "church pillars" who withhold their giving to the church until the pastor begins to do things their way or leaves. Wealthy members can use their money to control a church. "After all," they say, "if it weren't for my giving...." They try to buy the pastor's favor and so compromise the pastor's integrity. But wealthy donors like this are no better than the Pharisees who give and pray in order to be seen by others. Manipulators, power-seekers, they can be a blot on the purity of the Church of Jesus Christ.

Wealthy people can, of course, be a great blessing to others, if they give out of the right motives. If wealthy people give sacrificially, they please God. If they give out of love, they please God. If they give in proportion to their income, they please God.

But if we think that the value of our gift is greater than the widow's mite because it is a larger dollar amount, then we misunderstand the economics of the Kingdom of God. God does not need you or me to keep his enterprise afloat. He does not owe us. He is not beholden to us. The cattle on a thousand hills are his, and all the riches buried in the earth. He is fabulously wealthy.

On the other hand, don't withhold your gift, don't despise your giving just because the amount is so very small. God looks at your heart. God looks at your ability to give. And God desires to be proud of your giving, no matter how poor you are.

We don't give because God "needs" our contribution. We give in order to honor him with our substance. Whether large or small, we give to worship God.

I remember one other comparison Jesus gave between the wealthy and giving all. Jesus told the Rich Young Ruler to sell all that he had and give to the poor, and then to come, follow Him. The man balked. But the disciples later asked, "Haven't we given all to follow you?" And Jesus replied that those who give sacrificially will be richly rewarded -- in this life and in the life to come. (18:18-30).

How about you, my disciple friend? Have you given God your all, whether large or small? If you have, then you know the racing heart of trusting God for the next step, the next meal, the next project. And you know the reward of loving God with a joy and purity that reward you with his glorious presence.

I need to see that widow giving her two thin copper coins. I don't want to let her see me watching. But I need to see her. I need to see her to remind me once again what real love for God is all about.


Lord Jesus, I am more and more aware that those whom you will reward with the greatest crowns are not as likely to be the well-known Christian leaders, as the faithful men and women who regularly lay their whole life and livelihood on the line for you. I pray that  someday you might count me worthy to stand among these ordinary Christian heroes. In your Holy Name, I pray. Amen.

Key Verse

"I tell you the truth," he said, "this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on." (Luke 21:3-4)


Click on the link below to discuss on the forum one or more of the questions that follow -- your choice.

  1. In what way are church leaders, both clergy and laity, susceptible to the sins of the "teachers of the law" that Jesus criticizes in 20:45-47? How can a leader walk in humility? What are the keys you've discovered?
  2. How does Jesus compare the gifts of the rich verse the poor in 21:1-4? Who put in the most?
  3. How does the widow demonstrate the principle of proportional giving? How large are your gifts to God in proportion to your income? How large are your gifts in proportion to how much you have left after the bills are paid?
  4. How does the widow demonstrate the principle of sacrificial giving? What did that mean for her? What would sacrificial giving mean for you?
  5. How does the widow demonstrate the principle of faith-filled giving? Is this the same kind of faith you and I exhibit in our giving? Why or why not?
  6. What are the characteristics of well-to-do people who try to control churches by their giving?
Discipleship Training in Luke's Gospel, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Lessons compiled in 805-page book in paperback, Kindle, & PDF.


Abbreviations and References

[906] Prosechō, BDAG 879-880.

[907] Stolē, BDAG 946.

[908] Marshall, Luke, p. 750, cites Strack and Billerback II, 31-33. Ulrich Wilckens, stolē, TDNT 7:687-691.

[909] Katesthiō, BDAG 532.

[910] Prophasis, BDAG 889.

[911] Gazophylakion, BDAG 186. The lexicon cites Shekalim 6, 5.

[912] Ballō, BDAG 163.

[913] Leptos, BDAG 592.

[914] Based on D.H. Wheaton, "Money," New Bible Dictionary (Second Edition; Inter-Varsity Press/Tyndale House, 1982), p. 732.

[915] Edersheim, Life and Times 2:388, cites Babha B. 10b.

[916] Perisseuō, BDAG 805.

[917] Hysterēma, BDAG 1044.

[918] Bios, BDAG 176-177.

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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