Once, while Jesus was in Jerusalem, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on” (Luke 21:3-4).
“Therefore,” the preacher concludes, “this passage is teaching us that, just like that poor widow, we too should live by faith and give all our money to God!”
My heart sinks: that does not sound like Good News at all! I came to church to hear more about what Jesus has done for us; I leave church wondering if I’m giving enough to qualify.
Discouraged, I look back at the text. But what’s this, in the verse just before this episode about the poor widow? Jesus says, “They devour widows’ houses…These men will be punished most severely” (Luke 20:47). Who are these widow-devouring men? Ah, here we are, in verse 46: “Beware the teachers of the law.” These guys are in charge of the temple!
Jesus is not praising this poor widow for giving away all she had to live on; he is cursing the temple leadership for using their religious authority to devour her last two sen!
So if this episode is not about giving away all our money and living by faith…what is it about?
I take another look at the text. The protagonist is a widow. I do a quick word-search: “widow”. Ninety-six (96!) scripture references pop up, including this one, “Do not take the cloak of the widow as a pledge” (Deuteronomy 24:17). That confirms it: Jesus is definitely upset. Taking a widow’s last two sen is worse than taking her cloak as a pledge.
Which means this episode is actually about injustice to widows, not about giving money to God. Great! — but what are we supposed to do about that?
Then I remember that Jesus just told us exactly what to do about this injustice: “Beware the teachers of the law”! Okay. But how? What does “beware” mean in this context?
I do another quick word-search: “beware”. Luke has used the word two times before, in 12:1 and in 17:3.
I look up the first passage. Jesus tells his disciples, “[Beware] the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy” (Luke 12:1). What are the disciples supposed to do? I look at the verses just before. There, Jesus curses the local religious leaders for using their legalistic faith to crush the poor and make themselves wealthy. Then Jesus turns to his disciples and says, “Beware: do not become like these guys!”
I turn to the second passage. Jesus tells his disciples, “Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come…So [beware]” (Luke 17:1-3)! What are the disciples supposed to do? Again, I look at the larger context. Just before this, Jesus tells a story about a rich man who has no compassion on a poor man and is punished most severely. Then Jesus turns to his disciples and says, “Beware: don’t cause people to stumble!” Then he says, “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them” (Luke 17:3).
Here Jesus commands his disciples to proclaim forgiveness again, and again, and again. A forgiving faith produces compassionate people. A legalistic faith devours compassion: it demands that everyone pay for their own salvation; and those who cannot pay can go straight to hell.
I turn back to the story of the poor widow. I am beginning to understand Jesus’ command, “Beware the teachers of the law.” He is saying, “Do not become like these guys! They use their legalistic faith to make poor widows pay and pay and pay for salvation, and they will be punished most severely for it!”
So what is this episode actually about? This episode is actually a curse on preachers who tell Christians to live by faith and give up every last penny to God. This episode is Jesus’ warning to every pastor: “Do not use your position of authority to guilt people into giving.” This episode is Jesus’ warning to every disciple: “Have nothing to do with false teachers who use promises of health, wealth, and happiness to wring more money out of God’s people. They will be punished most severely!
“Instead, join a church where forgiveness is preached again and again and again and again…”
Now that sounds like the kind of Good News I’d want to hear!