Luke Chapter 21 "The Temple and the Titanic"
It’s always important to remember when reading scripture that things like chapter/verse numbers, pericope(story) headings like, “The Widow’s Mite,” and even punctuation found in scripture were not included in the original versions of what we read today. That being said, Chapter 21 of Luke’s gospel is distinctive from Ch. 20. In Ch. 20, as you might remember, we encountered Jesus’ tit-for-tats with religious authorities and community leaders. There are no such confrontations in Ch. 21, rather we see Jesus where he seems to belong: in the temple teaching and preaching. That being said, an interesting segue has occurred for us regarding the Widow’s offering:
45 In the hearing of all the people he said to the disciples, 46 “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets. 47 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
1 He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; 2 he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. 3 He said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; 4 for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.”
The result of removing the chapter numbers and verses reveals a striking continuity of Jesus’ criticism of the scribes and his observation of the widow. It shouldn’t be seen as casual coincidence that Jesus condemned the “scribes” (religious experts) for “devour[ing] widow’s houses,” then turned around and spoke favorably of a poor widow’s self-giving act of placing two small coins (likely all of her money) in the treasury of the temple. We can interpret this two ways: first, Jesus loves to upend assumptions, and his favorable view of the widow’s action is a continuing theme of this ministry that we could call eschatological reversal. We can understand eschatological reversal succinctly in the aphorism: “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.” Jesus’ teachings on eschatology or “end times” is that our priorities, our systems of power, everything, will be subverted and everyone will ultimately become equalized in love. The action of the widow, for Jesus, looked more like the kingdom of God that was “at hand” than the large gifts of the rich and powerful.
There is another way to interpret the story of the widow’s mite: Jesus was lamenting the current reality. While the widow had given piously, she was unbelievably poor, made so by the religious scribes who have “devoured her house.” Widows became poor because of the status of unmarried women in that particular context. There is a problem in any political and/or religious system that is silent about injustice and gives no aid to the poor who are trapped in poverty! And yet, this widow was astounding in her generosity. In two almost worthless bits of currency, she expressed a faith and piety far deeper than the pockets of the rich individuals who “gave out of their abundance.”
Eschatological reversal is important in the gospels. In Luke’s gospel particularly, Jesus’ teachings repeatedly reference back to the special place of the poor or “the least of these.” This is not because God arbitrarily favors richer or poorer people, but rather that God wishes for us to use the power with which we are blessed for the benefit of our community, rather than the benefit of a small group of individuals or ourselves. Invariably, when power and resources become something we possess rather than a gift from God that we steward, we begin to believe that we are the source of our own prosperity and that those who are suffering are doing so because they have not “tried hard enough.” This assumption serves to dehumanize those suffering in poverty. Those who are suffering also become easier and easier to ignore when power and wealth become something we try to hoard for ourselves instead of share. Jesus’ proclamation of the destruction of the temple came immediately after “some were speaking about the temple, [and] how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God.” It’s hard to see Jesus’ response coincidentally: “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”
Wealth, material possessions, status, and political power are all things that we are never meant to keep indefinitely. The opulent temple of Jerusalem was paneled with sheets of gold, and contained lavish decorations and adornments. A powerful comparison to this story could be found in the hyperbole surrounding the first voyage of the R.M.S. Titanic in 1912. Such a marvel of engineering and shipbuilding had claims of being “unsinkable” attached to it. The Titanic was the largest ship afloat at the time it embarked on its maiden voyage, yet it sunk in the North Atlantic despite its claims to “unsinkability.” Jesus warned those listening to him in the temple that, despite the majesty and power that seemed to be present in the furnishings of the temple, a time would come when the temple would become no more. Jesus’ prediction came true. The Temple, like any institution or created thing, ultimately ended. The very empire from which the religious elite of Jesus’ day received their political authority, power, and wealth in 70 A.D destroyed it.