To be singled out as one among all is an interesting experience. If the reason is negative, discomfort is certainly present. Even for a positive reason, however, being singled out can be an awkward experience. Mark 12:41-44 is a story about one person being positively singled out by Jesus (likely without her awareness). Quite possibly, however, the circumstances of this story made her feel negatively singled out. One things is clear: she stands out.
At the surface, the passage is a story about offerings. On closer examination, however, it is a story of allegiance and priorities. Seated across from the treasury, Jesus observes different people bringing in their monetary gifts. Many of the rich worshippers were generous—they gave much. One poor widow, however, is singled out—initially in reference to her giving only two mites, and later in reference to her giving more than the rich. How much can her “more” be? The narrative surprises with an unusual scale.
Now Jesus sat opposite the treasury and saw how the people put money into the treasury. And many who were rich put in much. Then one poor widow came and threw in two mites, which make a quadrans. So He called His disciples to Himself and said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all those who have given to the treasury; for they all put in out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all that she had, her whole livelihood.” (Mark 12:41-44, NKJV)
The story seems straightforward, even plain. Yet the bareness dissipates when we observe the details. I will focus on four features these details knit.
- The Props
Three props are present in the story: the treasury, the large sums which the rich put in the treasury, and the two small coins the widow offered. The imagery is vivid and impressive, tracing in the reader’s mind the steps of temple worshipers as they move towards the offering box, their hands dropping the money in.
Historical research puts the financial aspect of this story into a helpful perspective. According to the Rose Book of Bible Charts, Maps, and Time Lines, a mite was the modern equivalent of no more than $0.0012. The two mites, therefore, equaled $0.0024. The next coins up in value were the quadrans (two mites), and the penny or denarius, which equaled $0.16 and was the daily pay of laborers.
Have you ever dropped a penny? Did you stoop down to recover it? Probably not, or at least not for the sake of the money. The widow owned less than a penny. She was just scraping by. Yet she stopped by the treasury too, even in the intimidating presence of her rich compatriots. The story, in fact, presents her in sharp contrast with the rich worshippers.
- The Antithesis
The antithesis between the widow and the rich is obvious, but observing it more closely will help contour the spiritual meaning better. Three contrasting elements create the antithesis: many-one, rich-poor, and large sums-two mites. The contrast is even clearer in the ESV version, which says “two small copper coins.” For the first century reader, the mite was the equivalent of very small money, so the meaning was implied in the word.
|One||Poor (widow)||Two mites/two small coins|
Thus, the many and rich gave large sums, while the one and poor gave two small coins. Quite cleverly, the author weaves together a qualitative contrast—rich versus poor—and two quantitative contrasts—many versus one, and large versus small—in order to create a clear distinction between two categories of people, and paint the circumstances of this widow. She is overpowered, not only financially, but numerically as well. Such an undesirable place to be in! Such inner strength to still walk to the offering box and put in her two coins! For some of us, this action would be even more inconvenient than stooping down to collect a dropped penny. Yet the widow was unabated.
- The Repetitions
The quantitative and qualitative details in the author’s narration (vs. 41-42) are echoed in the speech Jesus gives his disciples (vs. 43-44), which also includes both quantitative and qualitative details, yet this time with a marked difference. Here both of these features are expressed through one word: all. Notice the repetition of the word in verses 43-44:
Assuredly, I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all those who have given to the treasury; for they all put in out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all that she had, her whole livelihood. (NKJV, emphases added)
The word all is used three times, but with two different meanings, depending on who it is referring to:
- In regards to the rich and many, the word “all” describes their number.
- In regards to the one and poor, the word “all” describes her financial means.
This repetition further enhances the contrast between the many and rich who gave large sums, and the one and poor who gave two small coins, and helps bring the theological point home. Thus, the “many” from verses 41 become “all” in verses 43 and 44, and the “one (quadrans)” from verse 42 becomes “all she had” in verse 44. The one (poor widow) stands out among all (the rich) because she gave all she had: one quadrans.
- The parallelism
Lastly, the story features an interesting structural parallelism which further emphasizes the point above. Mark uses two repetitive and apparently redundant phrases about the woman–once in the narrator’s part, and once in Jesus’ speech:
Now Jesus sat opposite the treasury and saw how the people put money into the treasury. And many who were rich put in much. Then one poor widow came and threw in two mites, which make a quadrans. So He called His disciples to Himself and said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all those who have given to the treasury; for they all put in out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all that she had, her whole livelihood.” (NKJV, emphases mine)
In appearance, neither of these expressions (which make a quadrans and her whole livelihood) add something new. It’s as if someone would say today “she gave four quarters, which make a dollar.” Everyone knows that four quarters make one dollar, so the addition seems redundant. Both phrases simply repeat what was said before.
The desired emphasis, however, is as evident as it is skillfully developed. In the first case, the emphasis is on one (quadrans). In the second case, the emphasis is on all (she had)–which is that one quadrans. Thus, both repetitions describe the same thing. The wording, however, becomes meaningful in the antithesis with the rich. The one quadrans given by the one stands in sharp contrast with the much that all the rich gave, because she gave all. And “all” is more than “much.” This is what moves Jesus to call his disciples and single this action out. This kind of all is what interests Jesus most.
The Heart of the Matter
The ultimate message of the narrative is a message of devotion. The narrative highlights one person who gave all, illustrating genuine allegiance in the face of adversity and very unfavorable circumstances. The heart of the matter is a matter of the heart. The woman’s one quadrans was all that she had, her whole livelihood. The rich gave much, but only a fraction from their abundance. So Jesus reminds us in unambiguous terms that all is more than much, and that one faithful servant is more precious to him than all half-hearted ones.
The story is as much about defying the uncomfortable, possibly shameful circumstances, and being true to yourself–a self that may be utterly painful for most of us, as it is about staying true to the God we worship. This genuineness in our relationship with God is manifested in loyalty, and loyalty is demonstrated in the action of giving what we have, even when what we have appears so insignificant.
The widow’s whole livelihood was less than a penny, and yet both she and Jesus deemed that valuable. She deemed it valuable enough to bring it to God, and Jesus deemed it remarkably valuable because it was a gift given from an abundant devotion. What would be a negligible thing in our hands was, in the hands of this woman, an invaluable demonstration of love and allegiance.
The narrative begins with the human perspective and then moves to the divine perspective–one which Jesus shares with his disciples, and ultimately with us, 21st century readers. Far from being irrelevant and obsolete, this story has an incredible potential to move us to bless others today. Even when we can’t imagine someone less fortunate than ourselves, giving of our gifts and talents, be they money, time, or skills, not only has an immense potential to be multiplied and payed forward, but is balm on the wounded hands of Jesus who gave everything for us. And if we would consider the many much less fortunate than ourselves, how much greater would the blessing be?
 Rose Book of Bible Charts, Maps, and Time Lines (Torrance, CA: Rose Publishing, 2005), pg. 33.