Devouring Widow’s Houses

Widow's Mite

Yesterday we looked briefly at how most people understand the passage about the Widow’s Mites, where a poor widow gives her last two coins to the temple. Most people today believe that Jesus praised her for such sacrifice, but the context indicates otherwise.

I think Jesus was actually saddened by what He observed.

Devouring Widow’s Houses

The surrounding context of this passage sheds light on how Jesus felt about what was going on in the temple that day. In Mark 12, right before Jesus observes and comments upon the rich giving from their wealth and the widow giving from her poverty, Jesus condemns the religious leaders for their pride, arrogance, self-prominence, and greed. In highlighting their greed, Jesus says that they “devour widows’ houses” (Mark 12:40). According to the Law of Moses, the spiritual leaders were supposed to be taking care of the widows and orphans in the community, and providing for their needs (Deut 26:12). But here they are doing the opposite. They are taking away from the widows what little they have left, leaving them destitute, without even a home to live in.

Could it really be that only three verses later, Jesus is now praising the sacrifice of a widow for giving her last two coins to the temple? How can it be? The temple should be giving to her; not her to the temple! They have already taken her house, and now they take her last two coins as well! Jesus is not happy and encouraged by what He sees, but saddened. He is not upset at the poor woman. Far from it! He is upset and saddened at how far the worship of God in the temple has degenerated that the priests and Levites are teaching and even demanding that poor widows who have no homes and no income give up their last two coins to support the work of the Lord.

If we read Mark 12:43-44 again with this perspective in mind, we can hear that Jesus is not amazed and impressed at her courage and her faith, but is almost choking back the tears at how this poor widow has been caught in the lies of greedy deception by the rich and wealthy religious leaders. She is only doing what she has been told to do. She obeys out of faith, knowing that her sacrifice is probably her death sentence. But she loves God so much, she does it anyway.

But it is not her fault. It is the fault of the religious leaders. They have devoured her house and now they are taking her life as well. Asking widows to tithe from their poverty is like using religion to pick the pockets of the poor. The temple should have been giving to her; not the other way around.

Providing for One’s Family is Most Important

Earlier in His ministry, Jesus had also criticized the religious leaders for teaching people that it was their priority to give to the temple if this giving deprived a person’s family of financial support (Mark 7:10-13). Jesus taught, along with the Mosaic Law, that one’s primary responsibility was to support their family. If it was wrong for a person to tithe to the temple while neglecting their family, it would also be wrong to ask poverty-stricken widows to give to the temple, when they had no one to provide for them. This was especially true if this widow had children.
Widows mite baby

Here is what John Pilch says about this passage in his book, The Cultural World of Jesus:

Jesus does not praise but rather laments this woman’s behavior. She has been taught “sacrificial giving” by her religious leaders, and that is the pity. These authorities promised to redistribute Temple collections to the needy. In actuality, they spent the funds on conspicuous consumption instead: long robes and banquets. This is how they “devoured the estates of widows.”

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  1. says

    This was being posted while I was writing my rather longish comment on the previous post. Apparently, we have a similar take on the story.

    I understand that lots of Christians have been taught a version of “Biblical” that means giving money to the church, even if you are very poor, to pay for properties, buildings, staff salaries, programs and the like.

    I drive past multi-million dollar church properties filled with throngs of wealthy people (as compared to the peoples of this world, today) sitting on cushy chairs or pews, gazing out stained glass windows, and then arrive at my destination – the haunts of the homeless, many of whom have all they own in a backpack or in a shopping cart. Most of what they own would not be acceptable even as a donation to a thrift shop. What comment would Jesus make observing this?

    Have we outright “robbed” the poor? How is it that many multi- millionaires pay taxes at the same rate as a single mother who wipes off tables at a fast-food restaurant? Yes, I know the church doesn’t set the tax rates, but is building multi-million dollar properties our response to such inequities?

    • says

      Ha! We were reading each other’s minds! Actually, I had scheduled this post in advance, as I do with most of my posts. …

      But still, we are thinking in the same directions.

      I shudder to think at what Jesus would have to say about our multi-million dollar church buildings while poor people are living in cardboard boxes all over our cities and selling their bodies to get food.

  2. Clive Clifton says

    It’s amazing how much we miss things. I think the separation of the letters into chapters, paragraphs and sentences stops the flow of the letter, this separation causes us to see things as headliners of Jesus teaching. Now I have reread the two verses before the widows mite incident, I can see that Jesus was showing up the hypocritical attitudes of the priests who must have convinced this woman that unless she gave what they said was required she wood be insulting God. The reality that Jesus highlighted was the disobedience of the priests and their lies that put people into bondage.
    I’m going to have to take more care in my study. And make sure I get everything into context.
    Thank you again Jeremy. Clive

    • says


      Yes, the chapter and verse divisions – while helpful for finding verses – sometimes cause problems for understanding that passages. In this case, the context both before and after make the point pretty clear about how Jesus felt when the poor widow gave her last two pennies to the temple.

      We will look at the following context (in Mark 13) tomorrow.

  3. Tom says

    A few years ago, Ray Meyhew wrote a short booklet called EMBEZZLEMENT: THE CORPORATE SIN OF CONTEMPORARY CHRISTIANITY?. He makes the case the giving to the poor is not optional but is required and to not do so, is robbery or embezzlement.

    Many pastors and churches use Malachi 3:8 (“Will a man rob God”) to guilt people into giving to the church while the church is robbing the poor of that which is rightfully theirs by misappropriating these funds into salaries, buildings,etc.

    • says

      Tom, Thank you for sharing this link! I plan to print copies of this to give away.

      As one has read lots of “church history”, I’ve long been aware of much of this, but Ray did a good job a putting it together in this paper.

      We try to direct most of our giving to the poor to help make up for the years that most of our giving was directed to local churches to pay for buildings, staff salaries and programs. We’re trying to figure out ways to “unclutter” our lives and give as much as possible to the poor.

    • says

      Tom and Sam,

      Yes, that is a fantastic article! Very thorough and well-researched.

      I had not heard of the Relational Tithe website, and looked around for a while, and then joined. I love the idea!

  4. Doug Arnold says

    While I agree with the premise of this article I think it was more of a tax than a tithe as an old covenant tithe was never about money

    To me this was a tax for the upgrade of the temple
    The horrible Herod had to get money to build and upkeep the temple somehow

  5. Jan Willem says


    You can read more about the ways people could give money in the temple, in Edersheim’s classic: “the temple – its ministry and service”
    You can download it for free from here:
    On page 19 it describes the thirteen “chests” or “trumpets” in which you could throw money for specific purposes. One was used by this widow but we don’t know which one…..

    • Doug Arnold says

      I know what they were for or did in the past none were for a tithe as a tithe was never money and poor people didn’t tithe

      That was the point of my saying it wasn’t about a tithe

  6. B L says

    Another interesting way to look at the widow might story is to ask what was Jesus really emphasizing?

    Read Luke 21:-4, then read Luke 20:47, and Luke 4-8. Right before the story of the widow mites, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for devouring widows houses. Right after the story, he tells his disciples that the beautiful stones of the temple will be torn down. Maybe the writer is choosing to highlight something other than her piety?

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