The story of the widow’s offering is an inspiring illustration of someone who gives all she has, taking a risk greater than any of us could imagine, living out her faith in spite of her situation. It is also a challenge to those who are religious leaders, and those who give only what is expected and nothing more. We are challenged by the story of the widow to be responsible with the gifts people bring and to give more than just what’s expected of us.
Widows in Biblical times were women at the fringes of society. If a woman were widowed before bearing children, she would get back to her family of origin, her father and mother, and they would care for her. If, however, the widow had children, she became something like a “ward of the state.” There was no good way for a widow to earn a living. About the only way for her to make it was to become a prostitute or accept public aid, managed through the temple treasury.
This was true in the days of Elijah as well. These widows in our stories are women who are dirt poor. They are beyond poor, as we know poverty, not just being short on paying a few bills; they don’t know where their next meal will come from. Both widows give up their next meal in the service of God.
The risk these women take is amazing. It’s hard to imagine. They hold nothing back, but give all they have. This story inspires those who don’t have much. Often the poor are taught they have nothing to offer, or that what they could offer just doesn’t stack up to what someone of means can provide. What we learn from these texts is that God often chooses the poor, honors the gifts of the poor, even more so than the gifts of the rich.
As (John Calvin) writes, “The poor are encouraged by Jesus not to hesitate to express their love cheerfully out of their meager means.” Gifts given out of poverty are more meaningful than those given out of excess. This is encouraging for those who feel like they can’t give what others can give so why bother? Bother, because all gifts are meaningful in the eyes of God.
After gifts such as the widow’s are given, it becomes the responsibility of religious leaders to put them to good use. What a tragedy it is when this doesn’t happen. And it isn’t a new problem. Priests such as Samuel’s sons procured the offerings of the people for personal gain. Jesus denounces the scribes and Pharisees for expecting more from the people than they followed themselves. Martin Luther denounced the practice of indulgences of his time whereby the church became rich by selling salvation.
Such abuse continues into modern times. In his novel Elmer Gantry, based on crooked evangelists, Sinclair Lewis writes this —
“Elmer Gantry never knew who sent him thirty dimes, wrapped in a tract about holiness, nor why. But he found the sentiments in the tract useful in his sermon, and the thirty dimes he spent for lovely photographs of burlesque ladies.”
Still, the highlight of this text is not on how offerings are abused, but on sacrificial giving. How much do we give for the work of the Lord? Do we give out of our abundance just what is expected, and nothing more? Or, do we give out of our scarcity all we have, out of sheer delight in the One who has given all for us?