Besides Jesus Christ, no person in Scripture inspires generosity in me more than the widow who dropped two copper coins into a trumpet-shaped offering receptacle located near the temple treasury. This nameless widow has been known worldwide in every generation for the past two thousand years for her simple act of generosity. It took the Gospel writers Mark and Luke fewer than one hundred words and only four verses to tell her story. Of the two Mark offered the expanded version:
"Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, 'I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on'" (Mark 12:41–44).
What strikes me about this scene is that Jesus deliberately placed Himself in a position where He could watch people give. He made it His business to evaluate the gifts people brought. Rather than hanging out by the bagels and chit-chatting with the disciples before the worship service, Jesus sat, according to Mark, "opposite the place where the offerings were put" (v. 41). Apparently He was close enough to the action to see the wrinkled hand of a widow as she offered her coins. And Jesus still watches what people give to God. He makes our giving His business.
One scholar suggests that Jesus might have been sitting near the Gate Beautiful. If so, He was sitting between the Court of the Gentiles and the Court of Women. It is well documented by Josephus, the trusted Jewish historian, that thirteen trumpet-shaped receptacles sat in the forecourt of the Court of Women. They had been placed there for freewill offerings.
Scores of wealthy people came to worship that day and threw large sums of money into those receptacles. Imagine the wealthy pouring bags of coins that clinked and clanked as the money rolled into the receptacles. But a poor widow came to the temple that day as well. Unnoticed by everyone but Jesus, she made her way over to "the trumpets" and dropped in two lepta. Lepta are small copper coins whose value is one-eighth of a penny or one one-hundredth of a denarius, the average daily wage. The amount she gave was small indeed. Her coins would have made little sound as they fell onto the pile of money.
No doubt the widow's generosity was surprising and may have even widened Jesus' eyes. The wealthy had paraded one by one. Some of them, probably, had made such a show of throwing their coinage that the sound could have been heard out in the temple courtyard. Yet none of the gifts made by "major donors" impressed the Savior that day.
Both Mark and Luke give us a Reader's Digest Condensed Version of the account. We have only Jesus' punch line as He dialogued with His disciples. However, I cannot help wondering whether the expanded conversation found in the white pages of the Bible might have gone something like this.
"Hey guys!" Jesus calls to His disciples. "Come over here. Did you see her?"
Peter looks around. "Who?"
"Did you see the widow over there—the one standing by the trumpets?"
"A widow?" Judas smirked. "Why would we have any interest in a poor widow?"
"She gave a gift."
"To our ministry?" Judas asks.
"No, to the temple ministry."
"So what?" John wants to know. "Doesn't everybody bring a gift to the temple? Besides, she couldn't have given that much. Why are you making such a big deal about this widow? Do you even know her name?"
"She gave all she had, John. That is why I am making such a big deal of her gift. And yes, My Father has recorded her name in heaven. While you guys were over enjoying the fellowship at the bagel bar, I've been watching people as they gave their gifts. I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on."
Please don't make a doctrine out of my "sanctified imagination"—we can only speculate about the full conversation Jesus might have had with His disciples. What makes the widow's gift so remarkable is not how much she gave but how much she had left after she gave. This does not mean God wants us to give until we have nothing. It does, however, introduce us to a new way of thinking about our giving.
Putting in "all she had to live on," the widow gave sacrificially, not knowing how she would afford her next meal. The rich, who "gave out of their wealth," might have given up a luxury or two, but they sacrificed little compared with what the widow gave.
The president I serve at the College of Biblical Studies in Houston received a call one day from a woman who learned about us by tuning in to the school's early morning television program. This woman, herself a senior, told the president that she was homebound with her mother, who needed around-the-clock care. Unable to afford a nurse, the daughter herself served her mother day and night.
"I am not able to attend church except through television," she says. "But I am looking for a place to give my tithe. Can I give to the college?" Although the amount she gave was not much in monetary terms, her gift touched us deeply.
If you and I were providing financial counsel to the poor widow that day, would we have encouraged her to give away her lepta or to buy food with it? The latter possibility never seems to have crossed Jesus' mind—which goes to show how much God values simple faith and generosity.
Dr. Ron Jones (ThM, 1994) serves as vice president of development and a member of the faculty at College of Biblical Studies in Houston. He is the author of a new book, Jesus, Money, and Me, featured online at drronjones.com.