So here’s the plan: each week that the gospels are covered in Sunday School, I will post one question from my book along with a brief discussion of the issues that it raises.
Today, if someone gave away her last cent, we would probably consider her to be foolish. Does Mark 12:41-44 encourage us to reconsider that evaluation?
(adapted from Search, Ponder, and Pray: A Guide to the Gospels)
This story is difficult to interpret; one essay about it is called “The Widow’s Mite: Praise or Lament?” and it is a hard question to answer. On the one hand, Jesus goes out of his way to get his disciples to focus on this woman and then he says something nice about her. On the other hand, Jesus views the temple and its leadership as corrupt, so how can it be a good thing that she gave up money she couldn’t spare to it?
I will avoid the tough questions by making some comments about structure instead. No story in Mark occurs in a vacuum; they all rely on each other to make meaning. The story of the widow’s mite occurs immediately after Jesus tells his disciples to beware of scribes who devour widows’ houses. (By this, he means that they are in some way pilfering the widows’ money.) By contrast, the widow gives her tiny amount of money to the temple–which should be supporting her instead! She is the positive example in contrast to the negative example of the scribes. Given that she’s female, poor, and has no leadership role, it’s a big deal that Jesus chose her to be the positive example.
Further, there is a larger structure in this section of Mark:
A evil scribes denounced (12:38–40)
B the widow’s offering (12:41–44)
C teachings about true discipleship (13:1–37)
B’ the anointing (14:3–9)
A’ the plot to kill Jesus (14:10–11)
Jesus’ teachings about true discipleship are literally surrounded by positive examples of women being good disciples, at great financial cost to themselves. Jesus praises them both using a “verily I say unto you” saying. Interestingly, the widow’s mite is something like 1/20,000 the value of the anointing oil so there is also a larger point about it not being the actual amount of what we give but rather giving “our whole life” to Jesus which is starkly illustrated here. And then the positive examples are literally surrounded by negative example. (I’m too kind to point out that the negative examples are male and the positive ones female but, you know . . .)
And one more thing: it is not uncommon to hear that the “eye of the needle” (Mt 19:24) was a (small) gate into Jerusalem, which, if camels wanted to enter, they needed to pass through down on their knees and with their heads low. But this is so not true that even the Ensign debunked it.
I also wrote about this lesson here.