People Jesus Praised: The Poor Widow

English service - January 21, 2024

Messenger: Pastor Jim Allison


Mark 12:41-44


People Jesus Praised: The Poor Widow


              Hello again, everyone with us online and those here in person at Open Door Chapel.  After a month away from our message series “People Jesus Praised” for the Christmas break, today I’d like to go back to it with you.  As you remember, this is part of our larger quest for character formation.  No matter how old we are, none of us has quite reached the goal in this area of life, have we.  And living as a person of fully-formed character is at the heart of what it means to be a human being.  So this is worth our fullest attention and best efforts, though we can only achieve maturity in character with God’s help.  He is our teacher and guide on the journey today, as always. 


              In this morning’s story once again, He chooses an unlikely person through whom to speak.  Jesus has been teaching in the temple in Jerusalem, just days before He will be killed on the cross.  He has been speaking out against the teachers of the Law.  They are the so-called experts and hold a place of respect in this society.  So you might imagine He would praise and try to impress them—win their respect by showing how deeply He understands and loves the teachings of their God.  Instead, he holds up as a model of true faith not them but an unknown woman and her small offering in contrast to them.  Here as in other instances, Jesus knows how to get the attention of people, at least those who are really hungry to learn.     


              The story takes place in (v. 41) “the place where people put their temple offerings.”  This is the section of the temple grounds called the Court of Women, where women, men, non-Jews—basically anyone—can go for worship.  Along the walls are 13 trumpet-shaped containers made of brass.  In some of them, people put goods they want to donate, and in others money.  At Open Door, we have four boxes to receive four different types of offering.  The temple has more, but similarly they are for a variety of purposes, some clearly designated, and others in the “free” category.  Verses 41 and 42 tell us that many rich people put in large amounts.  They are placing, or dropping, or tossing, metal coins into metal containers, so if they give a big offering, there will be a big sound as it goes in. 


              The sound of the poor widow’s offering on the other hand, is so small that most people might not even notice it.  The “two very small copper coins” she puts in (v. 42), the text tells us, are “two lepta.”  For readers more familiar with Roman coins, Mark explains that that is the same amount as one kodrantes, the tiniest Roman copper coin.  In other words, her offering is about 1/16 of one day’s pay for a soldier.  Not a lot.


              It’s remarkable to me that God’s people in the Bible give their offerings in a way so that everyone can pretty easily see how much each person gives.  At Open Door, we think it’s important not to announce who is giving and how much.  We think if giving becomes something more than a private matter between the giver and God, it’s easy for the motivation to become a problem.  But not all churches operate that way.  I think I mentioned this before, but some years ago I had a chance to go to a church near Pasadena, California, in the U.S. to gather information for a paper I was writing.  Sarah Smith, the founder of the Hokusei Gakuen school system, was a member of that church after retiring and returning to her home country.  (Today it’s First Presbyterian Church of Altadena.)  At that time, they had the custom of writing in the bulletin each week who had given an offering the week before, and how much.  So Sarah Smith’s name was there for years and years, giving $5 per week.  The system Mark describes in today’s Bible story is similar in a way.


              Most people may not notice this unnamed woman’s offering, but Jesus does.  He sees that this is a teachable moment and makes a point of calling His disciples over to explain to them the significance of what has just happened (v. 43).


              What is the main point?  Is this story designed to teach us the proper motivation for giving money to support God’s work?  That is clearly part of it.  As Jesus watches people putting money into the containers in the story, God still watches the way people contribute to His work today.  He notices how much we give but even more the spirit with which we give. 


              I heard a good Bible message on this story recently by a man named David Platt.  (By the way, I’ve been hearing about plagiarism in the news recently, so I want to be careful to let you know when I use information I got from someone else.  But, as I’ve said before, I’m trying to give you the best content I can, not the most original.  So when you hear a message from me, if it’s really good, you can assume that I got it from someone else.  If it’s not so good, you can think, “Jim must have thought up that part by himself.”  In any case, we’re all trying to give God’s word, not our own, knowing that only His will meet real needs in our listeners.)


              Here's the outline of David Platt’s message on today’s Bible story.  It contrasts what the Bible would call worldly giving and godly giving.  (1) Worldly giving is motivated by pride, but godly giving is motivated by humility.  (2) Worldly giving wants to be seen; godly giving wants to be behind the scenes.  (3) Worldly giving desires power over others; godly giving demonstrates trust in God.  (4) Worldly giving is comfortable and convenient; godly giving is sacrificial and costly.  (5) Worldly giving bears fruit for a while; godly giving bears fruit forever.  I think that presents pretty well the message in Jesus’ story about giving money to support God’s work.  It is a countercultural way of approaching one important part of life—how we choose to handle our finances.  It gives us a clear example of what the Bible means when it tells us (I Samuel 16:7), “The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”


              Still, I feel led to try in today’s message to go beyond the matter of giving money.  This story has much more to tell us than about making financial contributions.  I’d like to explore the kind of spirit that the poor widow has, which makes it seem to her that giving all she has is the best course of action for her to take.  She is poor in terms of money, but her life as a whole is far from poor.  Jesus holds this spiritually rich widow up to us as a model from whom to learn.  So let’s keep looking for what more God is saying to us through her in the minutes that remain today.


              One question that comes to mind as we read this story is how Jesus knows that she is a poor widow.  It could be miraculous knowledge, but I wonder about another possibility.  Maybe she is well-known in that place, especially to the people who worship there regularly.  We don’t learn much about this widow, though it would be very interesting to know more about her.  But we do read in Luke 2 the story about another widow, this one named Anna, who meets Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus in the temple soon after His birth.  It tells us (Luke 2:37b), “She never left the temple. She worshiped night and day, praying and going without eating.”  So, like the widow in Mark 12 and Luke 21, she likely has very little money to put in the temple offering boxes.  She has lost her husband’s income, and the number of jobs open to women in this culture are very few, so earning a steady income herself is likely extremely difficult.  She is often there at the temple, and many people no doubt know her.  Jerusalem is not that huge of a city at this time. 


              Also, she has an important role to play in the life of this faith community, which does not depend on her having money.  She is a worshiper.  This includes especially praying and going without eating as spiritual disciplines.  She is a pillar of the community in important ways, which have nothing to do with her employment or financial status.  She is contributing something far beyond what money can.  God does not fail to see and appreciate this.  People who are paying attention to spiritual matters will notice this, too.  God clearly teaches His people to do so and expects this of us.  


              The “poor widow” in Mark’s story of the offerings (12:42) is not the only one in Israel, of course.  Anna is probably gone by now, but there are likely many others.  How do the people of Israel in Jesus’ time take care of those in their nation who live in poverty?  The way a society takes care of its poor people generally shows a lot about the health of the culture as a whole.  That’s because if there is adequate support for poor people, probably everyone else for the most part is getting their basic needs met, too. 


              There are some culture-wide systems in place for supporting the poor in Israel in New Testament times, but the responsibility is basically with the family.  The Old Testament Law commands people to give to people in need in various ways.  And the nation as a whole takes the religious laws as its national laws, though that system is placed under the Roman law at this time.  Deuteronomy 15:1-18 in the Old Testament, for example, teaches the people of Israel how they must provide support for poor people.  Basically, rather than having a welfare state system, they are taught to freely give to help the people around them.  People are not forced to make contributions.  Gifts are given through the temple.  So if a person like the widow in this story is to receive support, the temple is a likely place for her to receive it.


              In Deuteronomy 15:1-18, Moses teaches the people of Israel who are preparing to enter their new homeland after being freed from Egypt.  In v. 4 he says, “There shouldn't be any poor people among you. The LORD will greatly bless you in the land he is giving you.” Then in vv. 7-8, he continues, 


Suppose there are poor people among you. And suppose they live in one of the   towns in                the land the LORD your God is giving you. Then don't be mean to them.They are poor. So                don't hold back money from them. Instead, open    your hands and lend them what they                    need. Do it freely.


              In Leviticus 25:17-22 we see an even more specific teaching from God.  He tells them to make a habit of resting their land and themselves from their work regularly.  If they take an entire year away from growing crops, how will it be possible to live?  Wouldn’t that sound as crazy as a woman who put all she had to live on into an offering container?  No, not according to the God of the Bible.  He makes a bold promise to His people (vv. 20-22).


              Suppose you say, “In the seventh year we will not plant anything or gather our crops. So what will we eat?” I will send you a great blessing in the sixth year. The land will produce enough for three years. While you plant during the eighth year, you will eat food from the old crop. You will continue to eat food from it until the crops from the ninth year are gathered.


              That’s a very bold claim that God is making.  He will provide for His people when we put our full trust in Him.  But He has one overarching reason to make it.  He continues in v. 23, “The land . . . belongs to me. You are only outsiders who rent my land.”


              You may have noticed that I’m using words like “giving to God’s work.”  But on a more basic level, those words are very silly.  Can we really give anything to God?  No, of course not.  Everything belongs to Him already.  If you are a parent, when your children were little, did you ever give them money so that they could choose something to buy for you, for example as a birthday or Christmas present?  Chieko and I did that, and I’m glad we did.  It helped our children take one more step in the process of growing up.  But on another level, it makes no sense at all.  They could only really give us what they had received in the first place. 


              When we talk about giving to God, whether it is money, time, creativity, effort, or whatever we have, it’s not really possible to possess any of these things without His help.  If you have a lot of money because you have worked hard in business and made good profits, great.  But don’t forget that the ability to learn, plan, buy, and sell is yours because God gave you the tools and opportunities to make it possible.  All that depended on your physical health, which the Lord allowed you to have.  (Many people are not blessed with that wonderful gift.)  When we really understand this truth, we have strong reasons to be thankful and live out of a spirit of humility and praise to God for His goodness to us.  Giving to Him and to others who need our help is a natural way to express our appreciation and joy.  When God’s people in large numbers do this, the society around us will be much healthier and stabler.  God, make us thankful for the many, many blessings we have received and eager to share them with the people around us who need our help.


              The poor widow who gives everything must have in her mind an awareness of how blessed she is to be in the care of a generous God.  But what else could be there? 


              I wonder if she has a hope or expectation that some person at the temple might help her.  Could she be in some ways like the man in the Acts 3 story, who is unable to walk and so is carried to the temple gate?  He asks people entering the temple to give him something.  He sees Peter and John and watches them closely, expecting to get something from them.  Jesus’ disciples don’t have money, but they give him something better: the ability to get up and walk.  Could it be that the woman who gives her last coins goes there that day partly to ask God to help her?  Maybe she hopes He will do this by leading someone to obey His teachings and help the poor people like her that they see there that day.  It could be that in counting on others in her community to give, she is at the same time relying on God to lead people to give. 


              Do you think this one day is the only one when she has put in her last coins?  It may be that she does this not with shaking hands, full of fear, but with a spirit of quiet confidence and expectation because God has already provided for her many times in this way.  Sometimes He has sent a friend who notices she needs some help and is able and willing to give it.  Other times, she has taken the lack of visible support from people as God’s leading to wait on Him in prayer and fasting.  Through this experience, she has become closer and closer to God, physically hungry but richer and fuller and more satisfied on the whole as a person.  There have been times, too, when she has directly asked people for help, and the Lord has used her in this way to guide others to grow in generosity and community-building. 


              In any case (v. 44), she puts in everything she has. She gives all she has to live on. She does it without the assurance that the religious leaders who collect the offerings will use them all fairly and wisely.  Jesus knows that some of them, despite being in positions of spiritual leadership, do not have the character to handle faithfully the trust people place in them.  He has just criticized them (12:40) for taking advantage of widows.  Maybe she, too, knows that her offering could be misused.  But she does not insist on giving it directly to someone she knows needs help.  She is willing to leave that in God’s hands, as well, rather than withhold the gift she can give.  There’s a person we can look up to.  Lord, make us like her. 


              So does this poor widow receive help in the end?  The story does not tell us.  We can only trust that the God who takes notice of her need, and the model of faith she provides for us, also finds a way to meet all her needs in His time and way. 


              Maybe God expects us to finish the story in a sense in our own lives.  That does not mean He wants all of us all the time to give away 100% of the money in our bank accounts.  But we all do have people around us in genuine need like the poor widow.  Some of them live in Ishikawa Prefecture.  Others may live even closer or very far away.  Whoever and wherever they are, however, they are important to our God.  As we put all we have under His control, He will use us to help those around us who need our support.  And in whatever way He guides us to invest our resources, it will result in the kind of character we need to have and the praise which He deserves to receive.


Let’s pray that this will happen in us more and more each day.


              Lord, thank you for the living examples of faith whom you have raised up to give us the understanding and encouragement we need in following you.  Bless you for the spirit of the woman in today’s story.  Though we do not even know her name, help us to honor her and, far more, honor you by being like her and placing all that we have under your control.  We confess that all we have belongs to you.  So, whether we place it in an offering box or use it some other way under your direction, help us to put ourselves 100% in your hands.  Help us have the freedom of spirit that you desire for your people.  Enable us to see from our own experience and so live with a deep assurance that you always provide for your people as we follow you step by step in faith.  This is our prayer, in Jesus’ name.  Amen.   





Gill, J. (1746-1763). John Gill's Exposition of the Bible. https://www.biblestudytools.   com/commentaries/gills-exposition-of-the-bible/mark-12-42.html


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Platt, D. (2023, June 5). Worldly Giving and Godly Giving. Following Jesus. McLean Bible Church.