The Real Story of the Poor Widow
The real story about the poor widow is probably not what you were taught in Sunday School. Much Christian education uses the poor widow as a model of sacrificial Christian giving. That is what I learned in Sunday School. In fact, it's a story about abuse of power.
When I went to Sunday School, the major topic of many of our opening exercises was raising money for the poor. We made little church-shaped cardboard boxes to hold our nickels and dimes so that we could help buy chickens or a cow for people in some poor village somewhere. Every Thanksgiving, we were supposed to collect food for the poor. And so we brought in cans of green beans and boxes of Jell-O to donate to the poor. We heard many times about the poor widow who gave everything she had to live on as an example of what God wanted us to do.
In fact, this interpretation of the Bible story about the poor widow is a drastic misinterpretation of the teachings of Jesus about money.
Economic Reality for Widows in Ancient Palestine
A widow in ancient Palestine was in a very vulnerable financial condition. Most people lived in patriarchal family units on hereditary family land, under the authority of the ruling adult male. Women always lived under the authority and protection of men. Unmarried women remained at home under the authority and protection of their fathers. Married women lived under the authority and protection of their husbands.
While some widows in Palestine were citizens of Rome, with greater legal and financial resources, most widows were extremely vulnerable. Most widows had no legal standing and no money of their own. For this reason, the Torah always recognized widows as a special class of people who needed financial protection.
The Poor Widow and the Scribes Who Devour Houses of Widows
In both Mark 12:38-44 and Luke 20:45-47; 21:1-4, the story of the poor widow comes immediately after Jesus’s condemnation of the practices of the scribes. The scribes were the legal scholars and lawyers. They were the experts on the oral and written Torah. In both Mark and Luke, Jesus comments on the poor widow after describing the scribes as those who “devour the houses of widows.”
Unless she was a Roman citizen, a widow had no legal status to manage the property and money her husband had left behind. After a man’s death, the scribes would appoint a "pious man" to handle the widow’s financial affairs. The clear implication of the story is that the scribes were using their legal status to defraud the widows out of their property and their money. The scribes who were supposed to protect her had left her with only two tiny coins to live on.
This story Jesus tells about the poor widow is consistent with his condemnation of the religious system that defrauded the poor widows. It is also consistent with his condemnation of the practices of the rich because of their exploitation of the poor. He compares the contributions of the rich with the tiny contribution of the widow as a way to criticize the rich. Although the very rich gave large sums of money, what they gave made no difference in the way they lived. They gave out of their abundance. However, she gave all she had to live on.
How Christian Money Education Misses the Point about the Poor Widow
When Christian teaching separates the story of the widow from the comment about the scribes who devour the houses of widows, it misses the point of what Jesus said about money. What Sunday School taught me about this story distorts the point of the original story and creates fear and lack in the ones Jesus intended to liberate.
In fact, the story of the poor widow is not a story telling the poor to give away everything they have. It is a story about an unjust legal system in which the poorest and most vulnerable were being exploited by the rich and powerful.
The words about the poor widow need to be put back into the context of the whole story of Jesus in his campaign to proclaim the Kingdom of God for the benefit of the poorest and most vulnerable. This story does not teach the most vulnerable of the society to give away everything they have. In fact, this story is a condemnation of a religious system that robbed widows of their money.
Money is one of the necessities of life. Money is power. Those who have money have social and political power. Those without money struggle endlessly. The heart of the problem is that much Christian Bible education reduces the topic of money to a few Bible verses, with no effort to put the words of the Bible into any larger context. In the case of the poor widow, erroneous interpretation ignores why she was so poor. This is the kind of misinterpretation of biblical stories about money that keeps some pious Christians broke and struggling for money.
In fairness to the Sunday School teachers who taught me — and to Sunday School teachers everywhere — the Sunday School teachers are not at fault for this kind of erroneous interpretation. They were well-meaning volunteers with no more training about anything in the Bible than what they were taught in Sunday School by other well-meaning volunteers. This is the root of a very big problem when it comes to making claims about "what the Bible says" on any topic.
My book, Gospel of Wealth or Poverty? How Do Bible Verses about Jesus, Wealth, Poverty, and Heaven Affect Your Income?, puts Jesus money verses into biblical context, to show that much of Christian money education is both erroneous and unbiblical.