In Mark 12 a woman is noticed by Jesus putting two small copper coins into the treasury. These coins are called a lepton and represent the smallest denomination of currency possible (like throwing in one cent). Jesus says that she has put more into this treasury than all the heavy hitters who have paraded by dropping in their big donations.
“They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”
Mark 12: 43
The way this text is traditionally preached in churches is, ‘Look at that good old lady. She was trusting in God and gave even though she had nothing left. You should be like the little old lady.’ The problem is that if you look at the context, Mark seems to think that there is more going on here than just that. Jesus warns against the teachings of the Pharisees in v. 38 – 40 saying, “They like to walk around in flowing robes and 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.”
Then we have the story of the widow giving her last cent, and then as Jesus leaves the Temple, his disciples are raving about how great the building is, this renovation that Herod has been working at for almost 50 years, and Jesus warns, “Do you see all these great buildings? Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” (Mark 13: 2)
The Pharisees had legislated required offerings to those who came to the temple, and had supported legal loopholes that allowed wealthy people to avoid supporting poor relatives. (Mark 7: 11-12) This is exactly how Pharisees had devoured widows houses! By whittling away their savings until every last cent was in the temple treasury. Mark is illustrating the process that Jesus is talking about! Why would Jesus support the giving of this gift and then talk about blowing up the place two verses later?
At this point in the Gospel of Mark we are less than 48 hours from the crucifixion. There will be no more invitations to follow Jesus. He is setting the board for end game and offering his final warnings.
What is this story teaching? I am not saying that there is nothing to be learned from the widow’s example but is this an example of how we should live or is this evidence of a way of life that Jesus has set us free from? It all depends what you think the Gospel is really all about. Is the Gospel about what you need to do or is it about what Jesus has already done?
As readers of the Bible we are in grave jeopardy of reading the text like the Gospel is all about us. What do we need to do? Jesus becomes reduced to a ‘good example’ and we just have to do like Jesus.
That is not Good News! Jesus is PERFECT! If we have to be like him then we are in big trouble! Don’t get me wrong; Jesus is the only good example. Jesus lived a perfect life so that we wouldn’t have to. Jesus was fully compliant to the Law’s requirements. He was fully obedient to God the Father and then exchanged that perfect life for our sin on the cross (2 Cor. 5: 21). He absorbed the wrath of God which was our punishment for our sin and He gives us His perfect record. When God looks at us He doesn’t see our sin, but the perfect life of Jesus Christ. That is Good News!
The Gospel is that God himself came to restore and renew creation through the work of Jesus Christ on our behalf.
The purpose of salvation is a renewed heart, it is a ‘new heaven’ and a ‘new earth’, new appetites, a new reason for living. “Behold I am making all things new!”(Rev. 21: 5) The means of salvation however is through God’s Grace: the completed work of God through the death burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is vital we don’t mix those two up.
What is this story teaching then? In this story we see Jesus speak out against empty religious practice: ‘Beware the teachings of the Pharisees! Beware money grubbing ‘holy’ men. Don’t put much stock in big buildings or big programs cause a day will come when I will blow this all up.’
When we read the Bible we sometimes make the mistake of moralizing what we read instead of reading everything through the lens of Jesus Christ. Jesus delivers us from tokenistic religious machinery. By God’s grace we are redeemed from justifying ourselves. When we make Jesus our greatest posession (Phil. 3: 7-8) we are freed from material wealth. We can even give it all away!
It’s not saying, “Be like the old widow or Jesus won’t come through for you,” it’s saying, “Make Jesus your only treasure or you will never be able to be like the widow.”