May 21, 2023

The Widow's Mite

The story of the widow’s mite is widely viewed as a model of true and meaningful sacrifice. This woman’s example teaches us that it is far more important where our heart is when we give than the amount of our gift. If we give or serve out of love and devotion to God, then even a small gift can be a great sacrifice.

To more fully appreciate the significance of this widow’s donation, let’s explore its historical setting.[1] First, we’ll look at where the story took place: the temple in Jerusalem.

During the time of Christ, the temple was in the middle of an over 80-year reconstruction project that began under King Herod and was thus known as Herod’s Temple.[2] As one of the largest structures in the world at that time, its beauty and grandeur was beyond comparison. High on the hilltop of Mount Moriah it could be seen for miles round about Jerusalem. 

While the temple itself stood at a majestic 150 feet tall, the temple complex was also massive, totaling about 37 acres, or approximately the equivalent of 26 football fields. Understandably, a project this extensive was quite costly, requiring significant donations and taxes from the people. 

Court of the Women in the temple of Herod

Towards the center of the temple complex was the court of the women, also known as the treasury (see for example Mark 12:41 and John 8:20). Thirteen collection boxes were placed here, each chest labeled for the various types of offerings that could be given.[3] On top of each box was a trumpet-shaped receptacle where donations could be made. As one can imagine, the coins falling down the shaft of the trumpet made a noise loud enough for others to hear. The larger the donation, the louder the sound. When teaching his followers about almsgiving, Christ may have been referring to these money boxes when stating, “do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do ... that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.” (Matthew 6:2).

The trumpet shaped donation boxes in the Court of the Women

The temple was meant to be a place where God’s people could come to worship, make sacrifices, and learn to serve others. Instead, it was being corrupted by pride and hypocrisy—especially among the wealthy and religious elite. 

With this temple setting in mind, let’s now consider when the widow’s donation occurred. 

The Savior’s observance of this woman took place during the last week of his life, now known as Holy Week. At this time, Jews from all over came to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. And for many pilgrims, this involved paying taxes and making donations at the temple. 

While anyone could freely donate any amount into the designated boxes, all Jewish males were required to pay a half-shekel once each year. The temple authorities, however, required that inferior Jewish coins be exchanged for Roman coins which had a higher percentage of silver. In order to make an exchange, the people were charged about an 8% fee, which was most likely pocketed by the corrupt temple priests along with a portion of the collected donations.[4]

When Jesus encountered this type of corruption at the temple, he overturned the tables where the money was exchanged, proclaiming they had made his Father’s house into a den of thieves (Matthew 21:13). 

Yet this isn’t the only money-related teaching leading up to the story of the widow’s mite. There’s also the account of a rich man named Zacchæus (Luke 19:1-11), the parable of the pounds (Luke 19:12-26), and Christ’s teachings about taxes (Luke 20:20-26). And then just before the story of the widow’s mite, Jesus gives this powerful rebuke: “Beware of the scribes, which desire … the highest seats in the synagogues, … which devour widows’ houses, and for a shew make long prayers: the same shall receive greater damnation.” (Luke 20:46-47 KJV).

Together these teachings make it clear that Jesus wasn’t happy with the attitudes towards wealth and status that were being promoted by the religious leaders of the day. 

Decorative opus sectile floors under the porch of the Court of the Women

With this context in mind, let’s take a closer look at the story of the widow’s mite. As Jesus was teaching at the temple during his final week, he looked up and saw rich men casting their coins noisily into the donation boxes. But then he noticed another coming to make her own donation. She was a poor widow. Surrounded by the beautiful grandeur of the temple, she approached the court of the women and offered all that she had. But it was only two mites—what an average wage earner would receive for just about 12 minutes of labor.[5] Unlike the repeated and noisy clanking of larger coins made by wealthy patrons, her meager donation would have been almost imperceptible as it fell into the box below. 

Yet Jesus taught that this widow had put in more than all the others. For they “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 NIV). In other words, it isn’t the worldly worth of a gift that matters, but rather the degree of personal sacrifice and devotion involved. Whether we are a poor widow or a rich young ruler, God wants us to be willing, if needed, to give up everything to follow him. The irony is that the law of Moses teaches that widows are to be cared for, but it is this woman who is freely giving to the very ones who should be caring for her. 

The widow giving her two mites in the temple treasury by Milo Winter

There’s more to the message, though, for Jesus knew that despite the efforts being made to renovate the temple, in only a few decades it would be destroyed. Directly following His teachings about the widow, He prophesied of the temple that “the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.” (Luke 21:6 NIV).  

For his listeners who were marveling at that very moment at the beauty and splendor of the temple, this must have been a shocking and disturbing message. How could such devastation come to such a holy place? And why would God allow it? The answer, at least in part, may be that it wasn’t nearly as holy as the people thought. 

Unlike this widow, who humbly consecrated all she had towards establishing the house of the Lord, the Scribes and Pharisees were making unacceptable offerings. In their pride and greed, they were desecrating the temple and using it to their personal advantage. So, God would eventually take the temple from them, much like they were defrauding poor widows out of their property. This prophesied destruction took place nearly 40 years later by a Roman army, who indeed dismantled the temple block by block.

As typified by the destruction of the temple, attitudes of pride and greed have a tendency to destroy the very things they are trying to lift up. In the end, God is simply not impressed by those who loudly proclaim their generosity while ignoring those suffering nearby. 

The poor widow who cast in her two mites may not have thought much of her meager offering. Perhaps she thought no one noticed. But Jesus did. Our Father in Heaven sees every good thing we do. He knows our hearts and minds. He sees our sacrifices and efforts, no matter how small or unimportant they may outwardly seem. Buildings may be destroyed, legacies may be forgotten, leaders may fall, but our humble service rendered to others will always be seen and remembered by the Lord.

Script written by Heather Ruth Pack and edited by Ryan Dahle


[1] The terms “mite” and “farthing” are used in the King James Version as they are British terms to denote a coin with low value. During the time of Christ, the widow would have donated a lepton or two lepta, a small, crude coin used in Judea. 

[2] The construction of Herod’s temple began in 20 B.C. and was completed before the Jewish revolt in 66 A.D. It was destroyed by Romans in 70 A.D. 

[3] The boxes were used for various donations such as new shekel dues, wood, bird offering, frankincense, gold for the mercy seat, and six for free-will offerings. 

[4] Richard Neitzel Holzaphel, Jesus Christ and the World of the New Testament, pg. 122.

[5] Lesson of the widow’s mite, Wikipedia.

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