She Came, God Saw, She Conquered

And there came a certain poor widow, and she cast in two mites, which make a farthing. And calling his disciples together, he saith to them: Amen I say to you, this poor widow hath cast in more than all they who have cast into the treasury. For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want cast in all she had, even her whole living. (Mark 12:42-44)

The account of the widow’s mite is recorded by Saint Matthew and Saint Luke. The Holy Ghost, the First Author of the Scriptures, deemed the lesson to be learned by this particular commendation of Our Lord to be most salutary, having been twice highlighted in the Gospels.

Our Savior has just finished His temple discourses, first with a group of the pharisees by themselves, then some of  the pharisees and Herodians together, then some of the Sadducees alone. The pharisees sought to lay hands on Him, for they understood well enough that Jesus’ preceding parable of the wicked husbandmen who killed the landowner’s servants (and even his “most dear” son) was directed at them. They refrained though, for at this time “they feared the people.” That would change shortly after, on Good Friday.

Our Lord continued His teaching in the temple, again, using questions to educate the scribes concerning the Divinity of the Christ, the Son of David: “The Lord said to my Lord, Sit on my right hand, until I make thy enemies thy footstool. David therefore himself calleth him Lord, and whence is he then his son?” (Mark 12:36-37). To which the scribes had no answer. Then Jesus said to the multitude that were hearing His word “gladly”: “Beware of the scribes, who love to walk in long robes, and to be saluted in the marketplace, And to sit in the first chairs, in the synagogues, and to have the highest places at suppers: Who devour the houses of widows under the pretence of long prayer: these shall receive greater judgment” (ibid., vss 39-40).

So many times, Our Savior, and the inspired writers of both Old and New Testaments, stressed the obligation to care for the widows and orphans. How He dispised the hypocrisy of those pharisees!  They flaunted long prayers in public while they stole the very houses from the hapless widows who had solicited their intercession with God by donating money and property.

The Widow’s Mite, mosaic from Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna

Now, after these confrontations, the God-man was tired; so, too, His Apostles. They sat down, resting in the temple, in sight of the treasury, a large chest used as a donation box. The coins that were deposited in the treasury were used to support the priests and the poor. And, too, widows. Thus we read in Second Maccabees, when a Judas-like character revealed to a certain neighboring king that the treasury in the Jerusalem temple (over which the wretch had guardianship under the good high priest Onias) was loaded with treasures, Onias informed this king’s spy that “these were sums deposited, and provisions for the subsistence of the widows and the fatherless” (2 Macc. 3:10).

Jesus watched. He who knows all things, who reads the heart of every man, was observing the almsgivers. He had just upbraided the pharisees for their abuse of poor widows, now He points a certain widow out to the Twelve. Let us read the account from Mark:

“[M]any that were rich cast in much. And there came a certain poor widow, and she cast in two mites, which make a farthing.  And calling his disciples together, he saith to them: Amen I say to you, this poor widow hath cast in more than all they who have cast into the treasury. For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want cast in all she had, even her whole living” (vss 42-44).

There is no mystery in the account. The words are straight-forward and lucid. How is it that the two mites are deemed “more than” all that the others had cast into the treasury? Jesus tells us Himself: “They did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want cast in all she had, even her whole living.”

How poor she was! A mite (lepton in Greek) was the smallest coin in circulation in Judea. Equal to, it is affirmed by those who know these things, about six minutes of a work wage at the time. Mark notes that two mites equal a “farthing.” The smallest Roman coin was the quadran, and it took four mites, or two farthings, to equal a quadran. Forty mites equalled the Roman denarius. Another Hebrew coin was called a shekel, the Greek equivalent of which was called a stater. This latter word was used in only one verse in scripture, and that in Matthew’s Gospel, on the rather humorous occasion of Our Lord sending Peter to the sea to catch a fish with a hook and pull a stater from its mouth. The stater was enough to pay the temple tax for two heads. A stater equaled two Greek silver coins called “didrachmas” in the Gospel. I think I have all that right. In any event, nothing in Holy Scripture is superfluous, even monetary terms.

The fathers teach that it is not the amount of the gift that pleases God but the dispositions of the heart. A rich man may give much, but if it is a small percentage of his wealth, then it is accounted for less than a poor man who, although he give a small amount, he gives a larger percentage of his earnings. The magnanimity of this woman surpasses all, in that she gave “all she had, even her whole living.” Saint John Chrysostom says: “God does not appreciate the smallness of the gift, but the greatness of the affection with which it is offered.” (Homily on Hebrews) And Saint Bede (quoted by Cornelius a Lapide on this passage): “He weighs not the substance, but the conscience of the offerers.”

Please note that a rich man who is generous in charity can certainly be magnanimous in spirit. He can be, indeed must be, “poor in spirit.” Abraham was blessed by God with great possessions, but he was magnanimous. In fact, it was not a requirement of Our Lord’s for an Apostle to be financially poor. Some of the Twelve were, no doubt. But, it may well be that Bartholomew, was wealthy; he did have a name of nobility, for Bartholomew means “son of Ptolomey”. The Ptolomey were Macedonian kings who ruled in Egypt from 323-30 BC. Perhaps Matthew, the tax collector, was rich. He had, after all, lots of friends, even hosting a well-attended banquet for Christ after his calling. Zebedee, the father of the Apostles James and John, had a fishing business that seems to have had a good crew of employees. There is a tradition that he supplied the priests of the temple with his catches and that this is why Saint John was, as we read in the Gospel accounts of the passion, “known to the high-priest.”

Nevertheless, the widow, singularly praised by Our Lord for her magnanimity, was mightier (pardon the pun) than all in her total detachment and confidence in God’s providence. She believed that God would change the water of her two mites into wine.

Perhaps she was familiar with the Psalms wherein it is promised that the Almighty “is the father of orphans, and the judge of widows. God in his holy place” (Psalm 67:6). The Psalms were part of the daily prayer of pious Jews.

It is most certain that Jesus, whose most dear mother would nurture the infant Church for twenty-five years as a widow, left this obligation to care for widows as a legacy for all time, until the end of time.

“Religion,” teaches Saint James the Less, “clean and undefiled before God and the Father, is this: to visit the fatherless and widows in their tribulation: and to keep one’s self unspotted from this world” (James 1:27). And, too: Saint Paul “Honour widows, that are widows indeed.  But if any widow have children, or grandchildren, let her learn first to govern her own house, and to make a return of duty to her parents: for this is acceptable before God.  But she that is a widow indeed, and desolate, let her trust in God, and continue in supplications and prayers night and day” (1 Tim 5: 3-5).

She is anonymous on earth while in heaven her name is written in the Book of Life. She has no feast day. She purchased the Heart of Jesus with two mites. She is His exquisite Treasure, His secret.