The widow’s mite story in the Bible has captivated audiences for centuries. Who was she? What urgency drove her to the temple that day? Why would she sacrifice “all her living” in humble obscurity? Here is a new perspective on the widow’s mite.
Setting the Story of the Widow’s Mite
Shortly after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and within the week that he would give his life in the consummate act of atonement, he went into the temple to worship and to teach. He had spent the day declaring his authority, expounding parables, speaking of rendering unto Caesar and God their own, teaching of celestial marriage and the two great commandments, and testifying of his divine Sonship.
Now he turned to his disciples and warned them to beware of those scribes, whose hypocrisy harmed those who were among Israel’s most vulnerable—widows. In ancient Israel, the Lord had made provisions for widows. If they had no adult children to care for them, they were to marry one of their husband’s kinsmen or be taken in by their husbands’ families.
But if that did not happen, widows could face a life of excruciating loneliness and poverty. Worse, widows who were also childless became desperately miserable. They ranked among the most disenfranchised members of society. If no one took pity on them, they could live the remainder of their lives without hope or love.
Jesus had warned his disciples of the scribes’ abusive actions towards widows when he gazed into the courtyard and observed a “poor widow” depositing two mites into the treasury (Mark 12:41-44; Luke 21:1-4). Here is where we pick up the story of the widow’s mite(s).
A mite was the smallest coin in value and in size. The treasury was located in the Court of Women of the temple, where stood thirteen receptacles for collecting temple tribute and voluntary charitable offerings. Each receptacle was trumpet-shaped–narrow at the mouth and wide at the bottom. Affixed labels on each receptacle identified the type of donation.
Although sacred donations are supposed to be between the giver and the Lord, the metallic receptacles were situated in a public place so that every contribution was accompanied by a loud clanking sound. Every person in the courtyard could hear the giver dropping in his coins, and often eyes would turn toward the sound. This environment provided fertile ground for praise seekers.
Donors who sought public acclaim could purchase more than Jehovah’s approbation by making a substantial contribution of heavy coinage. It was simply good for business and good for the image for a person to be seen as a generous and a devout temple-goer. Perhaps that hypocrisy had drawn Jesus’ rebuke on an earlier occasion when he chastised those who “sound a trumpet” and give their alms (contributions to the poor) to be seen of men. Such people, he said, traded God’s reward for the praise and honor of men (Matthew 6:1-4).
Not so with the widow. She had come so quietly that Jesus had to point her out to his disciples. Her two tiny mites would have landed in the treasury like feathers on cotton.
The Widow’s Mite and the Temple
Although the account of the widow’s mite occupies a mere four verses in the gospels of Mark and Luke, we can glean much about this faithful woman from her story.
Coming up to the temple was no small task. Similar to temple worship today, if you were going to attend the temple, you would plan on spending a fair portion of your day. Prayer and sacrifice would be your primary aims. Beyond worship, you might also go to appeal to God for assistance for solutions that lay beyond your own strength. In every age, the poor, desperate, and miserable have sought refuge in the temple, the nearest place to God on earth. There, they have hoped to be seen and heard by God, and receive his help.
We expect that such was the case of this poor widow. Because of her obvious impoverished condition, she was likely childless and probably her husband’s family had abandoned her. With little doubt, she was alone in the world without support, protection or companionship. Her husband had left her nothing, or if he had, it was gone by now. After his death, she would have had her dowry for her support; Israelite brides receive a dowry for such eventualities, but apparently it had been used up.
This widow was now reduced to the level of the widow who had assisted Elijah. The widow’s mite represented no more than the other widow’s “handful of meal in a barrel and a little oil” (1 Kings 17:12). But there was another similarity: like the widow of old, the widow Jesus saw was also willing to give to God all that she had. We wonder if this widow, like her counterpart, also considered her sacrifice as the last she could give before she lay down and died.
The widow’s decision to make her sacrifice had brought her to the long bridge that led to Temple Mount, a huge 35-acre complex that rose high in the air and dwarfed Jerusalem. She would have observed the massive retaining walls that supported and surrounded the complex.
At the center of the Temple Mount, she would have gazed upon the holy temple, the House of the Lord, the sacred edifice that connected earth and heaven. A popular saying must have rung true in her ears as she gazed upon the temple: “He who has not seen the temple has not seen anything beautiful” (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Batra, 4a).
Looking up, she would have seen the imposing pinnacle of the temple, where every morning, a priest would sound his trumpet to signal the beginning of the daily sacrifices. From there, one could see all Jerusalem, the Roman Antonia Fortress at the corner of Temple Mount, Herod’s opulent palace near the city walls, and beyond the walls, the ominous Golgotha, the frightening rocky hill with cavities that resembled the eyes of a skull. Opposite Golgotha, was the Mount of Olives with its beautiful garden called Gethsemane. Events would soon play out there that likely had never crossed her mind.
The widow would have arrived at a wide set of steps that led into Temple Mount. At the top of these steps stood the Hulda Gates, and before the gates were three pools, where she would have ritually purified herself, in order to gain access to the most sacred precincts of the temple. Many beggars and infirm people were stationed there, hoping and begging for mercy from the temple-goers. Was her destiny to become one of them?
Now within the gates of the temple, she would have ascended a long, dimly lit staircase that ran under Temple Mount and emerged in the court of the temple above. When she stepped out of the darkness into the brightness of light, she would have had the sensation of entering the celestial world, possibly causing hope to surge within her.
The court was called the Court of the Gentiles, so named because anyone of any nationality or religion was allowed here. This court was massive with two rows of stunning white-marble pillars, each nearly forty feet high that ran the perimeter of Temple Mount and supported the roof that doubled as a walkway and observation deck. Crossing the Court of the Gentiles, the widow would have encountered people of multiple nationalities and heard dialects from many parts of the world.
She would have also observed renowned rabbis teaching their disciples at various locations in the courtyard. And, of course, she would have noticed more underprivileged people, who were begging– the blind and the crippled, so many that one could easily have become numb to their plight. Did her heart sink because she was so close to joining them?
The widow would have made her way toward the magnificent temple that rose breathtakingly heavenward above a balustrade of imposing walls that surrounded it, each entrance posted with warning notices to foreigners not to venture forth without incurring the death penalty. The temple’s white and rose-accented limestone finish was so brilliant that she would have had to shield her eyes to behold it.
From a distance, the temple would have appeared like a great snow-clad mountain. Parts of the structure were decorated with pure gold and precious gems of blue and green. The gold and cool colors contrasted elegantly with the temple’s dominant white exterior. Towering, gold-plated pilasters added to the temple’s beauty. Atop the pilasters were crenellations that lined the roof, suggesting the crown of a king.
Contrasting this spectacular visual feast were the places of vendors, who made the temple a place of merchandise. Earlier in the week, Jesus had rid the temple of these people, which event would contribute to his coming crucifixion.
Proceeding to the sacred inner courts, she would have chosen between three gates that led into the first inner court, which was called the Court of the Women. This is where Jesus spotted her. Beyond this court was the Court of the Men of Israel and the temple itself with the altar of sacrifice before it.
From this description of the setting of the widow’s mite, we can easily see that this poor woman had not made the trip to the temple casually. She had planned a full day, and her intent was obviously to make a sacrifice and pray. We can assume by her meager offering that she had come because she was desperate. She had no one and nothing.
What she did have—two mites–she had determined to give in sacrifice, undoubtedly because she had a glimmer of faith that “sacrifice brings forth the blessings of heaven.” She had no other hope. Everyone who should have cared for her had forsaken her, and because she had no man in her life to provide her safety, security and love, she now turned to the only Man she could trust. Here, in his house, she would throw herself upon his mercy.
Jesus Sees the Widow and the Widow’s Mite
One cannot read the story of the widow’s mite without coming to the conclusion that when she offered her tiny but enormous sacrifice, she was utterly isolated by her humility and her poverty. Seemingly, on this most important day of her life no one had paid any attention to her or her plight.
But Jesus noticed. He saw her. The very person whom she had prayed would help her noticed her! The God of heaven was in his holy temple, just as she had prayed he would be, and he saw her there in his house!
Which brings us to a disturbing question: Was Jesus just an observer or did his notice urge him to action? To answer that question, we might ask ourselves if we have any evidence that Jesus ever observed anyone’s pain without rushing to their aid. Could we imagine him taking the occasion to use the widow and her desperation as a convenient visual teaching aid then turn his back on her? We simply cannot form a mental image of a Savior who observes but does not save.
There is another important part of the story of the widow’s mite that we should consider. When Jesus pointed out this widow and her mite to the disciples, he seemed to know everything about her.
For example, he knew that she was a widow. How did he know that? Certainly not by her clothing. She was, after all, very poor and probably was wearing the only garment she owned. Besides, in those days, the practice of mourning was typically demonstrated by rending one’s clothing and covering one’s head with dust. That would have happened long before her trip to the temple.
Also, Jesus knew that she had dropped two mites into the treasury. How could he have known the denomination or number of coins when at a distance they would have been too small to see or hear? For that matter, how did he know that the two mites were “all her living?” Clearly, Jesus knew her intimately. They had never met, and yet he knew everything about her!
The Rest of the Story of the Widow’s Mite
We wish we knew the rest of the story of the widow’s mite. But we can surmise. We know, for example, that an eternal law governs the payment of tithes and offerings. Windows of heaven burst open when such faith is manifested (Malachi 3:10). This poor widow had come to the temple to make such an offering. The widow’s mite was her sacrifice.
Another law of heaven states that we must ask to receive, and we must knock for the Lord to open unto us (Matthew 7:7). Additionally, we know that in the process of asking and knocking, we must also make a sacrifice or our prayer is vain (Alma 34:28). The story of the widow’s mite speaks of the importance of asking, knocking and making a sacrifice.
If this widow was fasting that day–and we suppose that she was–the law of the fast also calls for an accompanying sacrifice (Isaiah 58:7), which, as we noted, the widow’s mite represented. We are told that the law of the fast yields incredible blessings such as relieving heavy burdens, allowing the oppressed to go free, and breaking every yoke (Isaiah 58:6). Would these blessings not be available to her for applying this law?
Finally, we are taught that temple service summons some of the most powerful blessings available to God’s children. The widow’s mite given in the temple would certainly have qualified her to claim such blessings.
With confidence, we believe that life changed for this widow. Perhaps the hearts of her husband’s family softened towards her. Maybe someone took pity on her or money began to show up unexpectedly. Could it be that another man came into her life and rescued her from an existence of loneliness and poverty? Any number of things could have happened, and we have every reason to believe that they did. Why? Because we know who saw her.
Lessons from the Widow’s Mite
We can take a lesson from the widow’s mite. When we find ourselves lonely, lacking, desperate, and in some way impoverished, we can likewise summon faith and approach the Lord with the purpose of giving him all that we have left to give. That sacrifice is called the sacrifice of the heart.
Guaranteed, when we consider our pitiful offering we will wonder, Is it enough? We might even ask ourselves, Will he see me? Will my two tiny mites attract the attention of the God of heaven? Will he hear my prayer? Does he know me? Does he know what I’m going through? Will he help me?
And the answer is yes.
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“The Widow’s Mite–A New Perspective” was written by Larry Barkdull. The subject, “The Widow’s Mite–A New Perspective,” is of vital importance to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. If you would like to know more about Mormons with no obligation, please click on the following links:
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