The Last Mite Becomes the Last Straw
The Parable of the woman’s mites has been a popular preaching text for over 2,000 years. It has been used as an example of total commitment to the Gospel. It is certainly true that God expects complete and total devotion to Him and that includes our money. But there is more to the parable than this. Let us look into the text and get the rest of the story.
Exposition of the Text
Although verse five is not usually included with this passage, it is the key to understanding it. The disciples marveled at the Temple and its lavish decoration. They saw the gleaming white marble and glittering gold which adorned the Temple and the surrounding buildings. Herod’s Temple at Jerusalem truly rated as one of the wonders of the world. For all his faults, Herod the Great was a magnificent builder. He built splendid palaces for himself, a great harbor at Caesarea as well as temples to Rome and her gods. The buildings of Herod were meant to show the superiority of Roman technology and power as much as to glorify Herod.
One can just imagine the cost of building the Temple. Thousands of tons of dirt had to be hauled to expand the courts of the Temple which had to be kept in place by the movement of huge rocks. Gold and marble had to be brought from other lands and hauled overland and uphill to Jerusalem. John mentions that the Temple of Jesus early ministry had been 46 years in building and was still under construction. Ironically, it would not be finished until just before the Jewish War for Independence close to 40 years later. Many donations from well to do Jews from all over the Roman Empire were needed to make the massive expansion of the second Temple built 500 years earlier.
O the glory of it all! “Just look at what I have built!” Of course, the glory of the Temple was formally given to the Jehovah, but the real glory was in the works of the hands of men. Herod’s other temples built to Rome and her gods is proof that it was not undertaken to give glory to Jehovah at all. The Temple gave pride to all of Jerusalem and her people.
Now we can come to the story of the widow’s mites. This appears in Luke to have come at the end of Jesus’ last visit to the Temple just before going out to the Mount of Olives. So the words Jesus speaks here are His last words there.
First of all, Jesus just observed what was going on. He was in the court of the women where the offering boxes were placed. It was Passover season, so there would have been a large number of pilgrims there from all over the Empire. Many of the visitors were quite wealthy. As the offering boxes were made of metal and the opening to the box was a horn, the sound of any coin being put in these boxes would be amplified just like the horn on an antique phonograph amplified the sound coming from the wax signal so that it could be heard.
So when the wealthier came into the Temple, they threw in coins of gold and silver. Both gold and silver have distinctive rings. The sound of gold and silver would have been quite noticeable as it bounced off the stone walls of the Temple. When a lot of silver and gold coins were dropped in, it was advertised to all. These are the generous donors whose gifts paid for the splendid white marble and gold of the Temple.
The widow had no silver or gold. All she had were two copper mites. Instead of the deafening ring of gold and silver, all that would have sounded was two dull thuds. Just take an old silver quarter and drop it. Listen to the ring. Now take a penny minted after 2000 and drop it. Notice the difference. How much gold and marble would two mites buy? Her gift was insignificant by human terms. In fact, just counting her offering might seem rather a nuisance, just like someone who puts a handful of pennies in the offering plate.
Jesus knew that this was the widow woman’s last two mites. She was now going to go home and die. In this, we should be reminded of the widow woman Elijah met who was at the end of her meal and oil. She was going to make one last little cake for her and her son before they died of starvation. Elijah instead told her to give it to him instead and promised that the oil and meal would last until the end of the famine. So she gave the last she had to God’s servant Elijah. And God took care of her when no one else would. We would have to assume, although it is not written here, that Jesus took care of this woman also.
This woman had given more than all of the rich people. The rich people gave their gold and silver to adorn Herod’s Temple. This widow gave all that she had to God. In this way, her offering meant far more to God than all of the gold and silver.
So far, we have looked in depth at the traditional interpretation to this passage which is certainly applicable for us as well. When we give, it ought to be for the glory of God and not for ourselves. Surely the left hand need not know what the right hand is doing. There is a danger that we only give lip service to God in our giving while we blow trumpets for all to hear. Jesus tells us that such people already have their reward.
But I have been hinting that the application of this incident goes beyond this. There is also a parable here in that this story also points to a greater reality. The Jewish nation had prided itself in being God’s people. If they were God’s children, then surely someone should have noticed a family resemblance to their Heavenly Father. God had revealed Himself again and again in the Old Testament as showing special attention to the plight of the widow and orphan. And He enjoined Israel to act in kind and demonstrate the same kindness toward the vulnerable. Israel was meant to use the wealth God had given them to help widows, orphans, and foreigners who came to live in the land.
The real indictment is that the offerings of the people were chiefly being used to build magnificent buildings for the glory of men and human architects. But only Jesus seemed to note or care of the widow’s condition. Why didn’t one of those rich people reach out and help this poor widow who was going home to die. The religious system had exacted the last two mites she had. Instead of being a source of relief and joy to her, the religious system was going to put the final nails in her coffin.
The disciples went away with Jesus for the last time from the Temple commenting on how magnificence. How shocked they must have been to hear that not one stone would be left upon another. No sooner was the Temple finished that the Romans took the city and made the surviving Jews take the Temple down stone by stone until there was not one left upon another.
The glory of men will not stand. God humbles human pride. He humbled Nebuchadnezzar who bragged “Is not this great Babylon which I have builded?” Pericles had no sooner finished the magnificent temple to Athena in Athens called the Parthenon that her protection failed. Pericles soon died and the city fell to Sparta which proceeded to use the Parthenon as a stable for horses.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism states that man’s chief purpose “is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” This is the commitment of all one’s heart, mind, and strength to God’s glory. The Temple God wants is not of gold and marble but rather flesh and blood where the Spirit of God abides in His church and in the believers. This is far more precious to Him than all of our building programs.
So the church which is Israel needs to learn from this text not to put the resources into things which are only temporary. The God of the Old Testament who showed mercy to the widows, orphans, and foreigners is the same God who calls us to serve. How are we reflecting the glory of the Father? Can the world see the family resemblance? Or does the world see more of a resemblance to the god of this world?
The last mite was the last straw for Israel. Jesus left, never to return. They had rejected the glory of God who had walked with them. Soon they would shout for His crucifixion. And not long after that, the Temple which they rejected would rise up again and the Temple they worshiped would be destroyed.
The question I leave you with is that if there was a last straw for Israel, is there a last straw for the church? When I say this, I am not saying that there is not a remnant of the church which is faithful, just as there was a remnant of Israel. When we look around today, the church is dying in America, just as it is already dead in Western Europe. It monumental building have become museums and mausoleums. These abodes of the dead are stark reminders of the departed glory.
But even as we mourn the dead here, the Spirit of God is moving in Africa, Asian, and South America. When people refuse to praise God, He will raise up living stones for His Temple elsewhere. It is high time for our churches in American to repent and to stop serving themselves and to serve the living God. It is time for the church to regain the DNA which makes it the church. Otherwise, the fate that came to the Temple of Jerusalem awaits us.