PassageThis post combines two short ESV section headings together.
The first is very simple: Jesus simply warns his followers to beware of the scribes, because they like to be recognized as being super-spiritual and be given places of honour, they like to make long prayers, and they like to “devour widows’ houses” (verse 40 (ESV)). Because of these tendencies, Jesus states that the scribes “will receive the greater condemnation” (verse 40 (ESV)).
Jesus then sits down in front of the box where people are putting their offerings for God/the temple, noticing a number of wealthy people putting in large sums of money, until he sees a poor widow coming and putting two small coins, worth only a penny (give or take). He then calls his disciples and tells them that this widow put in more than all of the others who had contributed to the box; they all “contributed out of their abundance,” while she, “out of her poverty,” had put in all she had to live on (verse 44 (ESV)).
ThoughtsI didn’t find any notes on how the scribes would “devour widows’ houses,” so I’m not sure if Jesus is referring to a specific practice here or just the general concept that the scribes like to think they’re holy yet don’t care about widows. I do find it interesting, however, that Jesus mentions devouring widows’ homes in the same breath as he mentions making long prayers.
When Jesus says that the scribes will receive the greater condemnation, I believe it’s because they should have known better than others. These are people who devoted their lives to studying the Scriptures; if anyone should have known about being humble and having compassion, it should have been them. But instead they did the opposite, enjoying praise from others and using their position for material gain. We should be careful not to do the same in our own lives! It’s a consistent message in the Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments: the more you know about God’s will, the more harshly you will be judged for ignoring it.
I don’t think the passage about the widow giving all that she has to the collection box indicates that we are always to give God all that we have, leaving ourselves nothing to live on. However, we should be giving enough back to God that, at the very least, we can feel the impact. The wealthy people who had donated before the widow got there put in a lot of money, but compared to the wealth they had it was a drop in the bucket; they wouldn’t even feel it. It would be (to quote the Kids in the Hall), like a soft breeze blowing through their bank account. Plopping $10,000 into the collection plate might seem like a lot of money—and it might impress the people around you—but if you’re a billionaire that 0.001% of your money isn’t really all that impressive at all. You can drop $10,000 into that collection plate week after week and never even notice it, the way I can drop in a quarter. But if that’s all you’re giving, can you really say that you’re prioritizing God with how you spend your money?
And let’s be clear, that’s what this is about: priorities. When the Old Testament Israelites sacrificed an animal and ensured that the best parts of the meat were burned up on the altar for God, it’s not because God was hungry, it was about making sure that God gets the best, because His needs/wants/demands are more important than yours. It’s about deciding that you’d rather give the best part of the meat to God—even if that means burning it in a fire—than to keep it for yourself. Similarly, if you’re giving so little of your income to God that you don’t even feel it—regardless if you made a billion dollars last year or a thousand—then it’s likely that God is such a low priority in your life that you don’t see the importance of handing over your money to him.
Whenever I read this passage I’m reminded of an episode of The Simpsons where they’re at church, the collection plate comes around, and Homer drops in a coupon. “But Marge,” he says, when scolded, “we can afford it, we’ve been blessed!” Obviously he’s purposely misunderstanding her, as if she’d claimed he put in too much; he’s trying to make his miserliness seem like generosity. Equally obviously God wouldn’t be fooled by such a trick, but neither is he fooled when we’re stingy with our money.
When the widow put in all that she had to live on it was because she was prioritizing God’s needs above her own. We can debate whether she was foolish or not, we can debate whether it would have been better for her to have kept her money—it’s not like that extra penny would have done so much good for the church that it was financially worth it, speaking from an earthly perspective—but you’ll notice that Jesus had only praise for this women. He didn’t rush over to the collection box, take the money out and give it back to her, he simply praised what she did: she put God first.