Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Thoughts on the Widow's Offering in Luke 20:1-4

This narrative episode begins in 19:45 and carries through to 21:38.  It is thus important to hold together the various scenes and how they are related to one another, and not isolate them from the narrative co-text or episode in which they occur.  So let us take a brief look at the scenes before our episode and establish the contextual features that may shape the way we understand the rest of this section.  An overview of the chapter with its various narrative scenes looks something like this:
Conflict with the Jerusalem Leadership (19:45-21:4)
  1.     The Prophetic Demonstration in the Temple (19:45-48)
  2. The Question of Jesus’ Authority (20:1-8).  See especially 20:8.
  3. Jerusalem’s Unfaithful Leadership (20:9-19).  See especially 20:19.
  4. The Question of Caesar’s Authority (and the Priority of the Temple) (20:20-26).
  5. The Question of Moses’ Authority (20:27-40).
  6. The Question of the Messiah’s Authority (20:41-44).
  7. Warning to the Disciples (20:45-21:4)
  8. Prophecy of Judgement on the Temple (21:5-6)
We are now ready to take a closer look at 20:45-21:6

Vs. 45 In the hearing of all the people he said to the disciples:

Vs. 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 honour at banquets.

The teaching is directed specifically at the disciples because they are not to emulate fellow teachers in certain respects.  They provide a counter-example for what Jesus is advocating.  This is seen in Jesus’ stringent critique of their quest for status and honour in the community at the expense of faithfulness to the heart of Torah. 
“Long robes,” like refers to “the outer garment by which a person is noted for his or her status.”[1]  This is in keeping with a Lukan theme where clothes note social status (cf. 7:25; 8:26-35; 16:19).
“‘Best seats’ [πρωτοκαθεδρία] and ‘places of honour’ [πρωτοκλισία] translate parallel Greek terms, both signifying the location of the seats reserved for the “first” among the gathered assembly.”[2]  This teaching is echoed in other places of Luke’s gospel (11:43; 14:7-11), suggesting an emphasis on religious leaders who want to be treated as wealthy benefactors.[3]
The four phrases used in 20:46 to characterise the teachers of the law are all ways of indicating claims to advanced social position through nonverbal behaviour.  Each illuminates the attempt of the teachers of the law to lay claim to exalted social status. 

Vs. 47 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.

The scribes have been shown to be inadequate interpreters of scripture (20:41-44).[4]  This failure of interpretation is now illustrated in their lives as they engage in activities that are not faithful to the scriptures. 
How exactly do they devour widows’ houses?  Fitzmyer lists several options.[5]
a)      Scribes accepted payment for legal aid to widows, even though such payment was forbidden.
b)      Scribes cheated widows of what was rightly theirs; as lawyers, they were acting as guardians appointed by a husband’s will to care for the widow’s estate.[6]
c)      Scribes sponged on the hospitality of these women of limited means, like the gluttons and gourmands mentioned in Ass. Mos. 7:6.
d)     Scribes mismanaged the property of widows like Anna who had dedicated themselves to the service of the Temple.
e)      Scribes took large sums of money from credulous old women as a reward for the prolonged prayer which they professed to make on their behalf.
f)       Scribes took the houses as pledges for debts which could not be paid.
 Jesus' response to this treatment of the poor widows is a pronouncement of greater condemnation.  The poor widow, a symbol of all those vulnerable in socieity, has been taken advantage of by the very system that was supposed to care for her.  As Green notes,
Jesus has gone on the offensive against them, and the ultimate charge he can lay against them is their participation in behaviours and their perpetuation of a system that victimizes widows, counted among the weakest members of society, whom both the law and leadership were to protect.[7]

Vs. 1   He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury;

Vs. 2   he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins.  

A λεπτός was a small copper coin.  A usual day’s wages was 120 lepta.  The offering was insignificant. The widow is described as “poor” but this is not the usual word πτωχοί (Lk. 4:18; 6:20; 7:22; 14:13, 21; 16:20, 22; 18:22; 19:8; 21:3) but another rare word, πενιχρός (Exod. 22:24; Prov. 28:15; 29:7; Lk. 21:2).  BDAG defines the word as “pertaining to being in need of things relating to livelihood).[8]  This women therefore has no income.  She is destitute.  What happens to her now that she has given all that she has?  How will she support herself?  Where will she get money for food, shelter and other necessities?  What are her options?  Slavery?  Prostitution?  Death? 
The scene deliberately contrasts the giving of the wealthy verses the giving of the poor.  The wealthy give with no consequence, but this poor widow has now sacrificed everything she has.  The wealthy thus give to a corrupt system, but with no real negative consequence to themselves.  The poor give to a corrupt system, but at great negative cost to themselves. 

Vs. 3   He said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them;

Vs. 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.”

Is Jesus’ offering this widow’s giving as an exemplary paradigm to be embraced and imitated?  Or, is Jesus offering a decisive and lament worthy illustration of the result of crooked scribes “devouring widows’ houses”? 
The inner disposition and outward bearing of the widow are not described or hinted at in the text, and nothing is said about divine vs. human measuring of gifts, because those are not the point of the story. And finally there is no praise of the widow in the passage and no invitation to imitate her, precisely because she ought not to be imitated.[9]
Thus, it is contextually more appropriate to read this narrative as specifically related to the warning Jesus is giving to the disciples.  Here, as so often in the gospels, we have a real illustration of the teaching/warning Jesus has just given concerning the scribes and those associated with the templ. 
The poverty of the widow, who gave her last pennies to the temple, illustrates what Jesus meant when he said that the teachers devour widows’ houses.  The poor are robbed, and the oppressive deeds are covered up with a show of prayer and religiosity.[10]

Vs. 5   And they were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said

Vs. 6   “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.”

If, indeed, Jesus is opposed to the devouring of widows’ houses, how could he possibly be pleased with what he sees here?[11]
And the evidence that Jesus is not pleased with what has happened to the widow, is seen here in his pronouncement of judgement.  This beautiful temple, dedicated to God, has become a symbol of oppression and abuse, and therefore does not represent God faithfully. 
And thus does Luke draw attention to a system, the temple treasury itself, set up in in such a way that it feeds off those who cannot fend for themselves.  What is worse, because it is the temple treasury, it has an inherent claim to divine legitimation.  How could it be involved in injustice?  It is God’s own house!  This widespread assumption about the temple only highlights the necessity of Jesus’ criticism of the temple, a criticism already began in 19:41-48.  Because it has fallen into the hands of those who use it for injustice, Jesus must comport himself and his message over against the temple and its leadership in prophetic judgement.[12] 
So this narrative episode begins with a prophetic utterance of judgement noting that the temple is filled with "robbers", it ends with a prophetic utterance of judgement, "not one stone will be left standing."  Throughout the various scenes in this episode, there is conflict between Jesus and the scribes, those associated with the temple.  Just before the pronouncement of judgement, Jesus offers his disciples a stark warning: The scribes are selfish and corrupt, and they are taking advantage of poor widows, and they will receive the greater condemnation.  Jesus then notes a specific example of a poor widow being taken advantage of, and walks out of the temple and announces one last time that the temple, along with those associated with it, will be judged. 

Many, including myself, have been guilty of using this text in a manner not faithful to the context and intent of Jesus.  With this passage we have a stark indication that sometimes our traditional understandings of Scripture are utterly misguided and mistaken, and perhaps driven by pragmatic or contemporary concerns. 
Critical exegesis is supposed to inform preaching, piety, and church thinking; but one wonders to what extent preaching, piety, and church interests have affected critical exegesis in the history of the interpretation of this text.[13]
This is why it is so important to always examine the narrative context in which we read specific stories.  The context must help us determine the intent of the author. 
What is the significance of this story for Churches and Christians today?

[1] Joel Green, The Gospel of Luke, 726.  See E.g., Gen 41:14, 41-42; Esth 6:8; 1 Chr. 15:27; 2 Chr 5:12; 1 Macc 6:15. 
[2] Green, 727.
[3] Green, “Good News,” 66-67.
[4] Green, 725.
[5] Fitzmyer, Luke X-XXIV, 1318.
[6] See J. D. M. Derrett, “‘Eating Up the Houses of Widows’: Jesus’s Comment on Lawyers?” NovT 14 (1972): 1-9.
[7] Green, 725.
[8] BDAG #5776.
[9] A. G. Wright, “The Widow’s Mite: Praise or Lament? – A Matter of Context,” CBQ 44 (1982): 256-65, here, 262-63.
[10] Evans, Luke, 302.
[11] Wright, The Widow’s Mite,” 262.
[12] Green, 728-29.
[13] Wright, “The Widow’s Mite,” 65.


sean santana said...

True. Context context context

Steven said...

This is a great post, and I think it does provide a lot of important context for this passage. However, in the broader context of all of Luke, do you really believe that this passage offers "no praise of the widow in the passage and no invitation to imitate her?" It seems to me Jesus' comments imply praise, if not outrightly giving it. And Jesus does say to imitate her giving style many other places in Luke - in the story of the rich fool and the sermon on dependence to God, Luke 12:13-34, especially 12:33 "Sell your belongings and give alms;" in the story of the rich young man and the following discourse on renunciation, Luke 18:18-30; and in the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19. I think you're absolutely correct that the story of the widow's mite falls into the larger context of condemnation for corrupt temple practices, but doesn't it also fall into the large Lukan context of sacrificial giving?

Sean said...

Hi Steven, thanks for your comments. In response to your question: *do you really believe that this passage offers "no praise of the widow in the passage and no invitation to imitate her?"* I must answer a resounding YES! There is no implication that Jesus' is offering her as a positive model of sacrificial giving, but rather as the victim of an unjust system of oppression which he vehemently opposes. When we begin to think socio-historically, we must ask: What would have happened to this women after she gave all she had to live on? Three probable options present themselves. 1) She becomes a prostitute, 2) She becomes a slave, 3) She dies due to her poverty. Remember, she's a widow, with nothing left.

Further, note that she is not being invited to be part of the Jesus-movement, as the rich young ruler, which would mean access to provisions. Further, she is not like Zacchaeus who would have remained rich even after his lavish generosity. Thus I do not see this as fitting within the larger Lukan context of sacrificial giving. I highly doubt that Jesus would advocate giving to the point that widows have to offer themselves into prostitution, slavery or death.

Steven said...

Interesting thoughts; I definitely see your point. I will have to ponder on this a bit more. Thanks for the great post, and your response.