Because of the structure of the lectionary that we use on Sundays there is always the danger of taking Jesus’ words out of context. Most of the time the Gospel passage read at Mass is a small part of a dialogue, story or instruction and should be re-inserted into its original context in order to be understood.
The well-known account of the widow’s mite is a good example. Taken by itself it appears that Jesus is using her as a straightforward example of the Christian spirit of self-sacrifice. But when placed within the larger scenario it becomes at least questionable as to whether Jesus is indeed even praising her at all.
To gain a complete perspective we must begin with Jesus and his followers returning to Jerusalem for the last time.
It was a few days before the Passover. Jesus would be dead before the week was over.
Upon entering the city they went directly to the sacred precincts of the Temple wherein Jesus first act was to upset the money changer’s tables. This violent act set the tone for what was to come. He accused the elders, who stood there aghast, of robbing the poor.
The next day Jesus was back in the Temple. A group of officials, still smarting from the day before, approached him and, in so many words, demanded to know who he thought he was and what gave him the right to speak with so much authority.
His response made them all the angrier. He spoke to them in parables to illustrate how they and their ancestors had so often missed the boat while ignoring the prophets, John the Baptist and now himself.
Determined to trip him up they sent over their first team - their brightest scholars. They approached him with a carefully contrived question. Jesus saw through their hypocrisy and once again they looked foolish in front of the people.
By this time his appearances in the Temple were attracting a large number of students who enjoyed the spectacle of their teachers’ discomfort at the hands of the Galilean who had the nerve to tell them, theologians and lawyers of reputation, that they understood neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. And yet Jesus did get through to one of them and to him he was heard to say: ”You are not far from the Kingdom of God.”
Infuriated, his enemies retreated, spent but determined to have their revenge. Jesus remained where he was and as the grumbling Scribes and Pharisees withdrew to regroup, other people gathered round to hear, as pointing to the backs of the retreating scholars, Jesus cried out, “Beware of them and their craving for honours, respect and admiration, for in reality, they swallow the property of widows.”
They are craven hypocrites! Do you want to see what I am talking about? Look over there at that poor old woman! She is putting all of the money she has into their greedy hands. The rich people can afford it but for her to have been sucked in by their hypocritical appeals and threats means that she is parting with all she has to live on.
And so what we have seen is Jesus condemning the legalistic, self–centered, religious elitists of his own day and ours.
It is Jesus condemning any approach to religion that is primarily worldly or political in its thrust, taking advantage of the simplicity and faith as well as the generosity of good people to build comfortable pulpits for themselves.
No, I don’t think that Jesus was primarily praising the poor widow. But that doesn’t mean that he was criticizing her …he was simply feeling sorry for her. I believe that he saw her as a victim of clerical corruption. The sincerity of her sacrifice is beyond question.
The widow’s gift is great as is her reward in heaven but Jesus did not hold her up as a model for the rest of us.
Sincerity and blind faith are, in themselves, not enough. We must also count among our brothers and sisters knowledgeable people of sound judgment. The good health of the Church is not maintained by the blindly submissive but by the faithful who know that to be faithful they must remain alert and prepared to be constructively critical.