Luke 20.45 – 21.9
45 Then, with the crowds listening, he turned to his disciples and said, 46 “Beware of these teachers of religious law! For they like to parade around in flowing robes and love to receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces. And how they love the seats of honor in the synagogues and the head table at banquets. 47 Yet they shamelessly cheat widows out of their property and then pretend to be pious by making long prayers in public. Because of this, they will be severely punished.”
21 While Jesus was in the Temple, he watched the rich people dropping their gifts in the collection box. 2 Then a poor widow came by and dropped in two small coins.
3 “I tell you the truth,” Jesus said, “this poor widow has given more than all the rest of them. 4 For they have given a tiny part of their surplus, but she, poor as she is, has given everything she has.”
5 Some of his disciples began talking about the majestic stonework of the Temple and the memorial decorations on the walls. But Jesus said, 6 “The time is coming when all these things will be completely demolished. Not one stone will be left on top of another!”
7 “Teacher,” they asked, “when will all this happen? What sign will show us that these things are about to take place?”
8 He replied, “Don’t let anyone mislead you, for many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and saying, ‘The time has come!’ But don’t believe them. 9 And when you hear of wars and insurrections, don’t panic. Yes, these things must take place first, but the end won’t follow immediately.”
If you are reading this everyday (and if you are, thank you), you will notice that I carried over the last few verses of chapter 20 from yesterday. Why would I have you read them twice? Because this is one of those places where chapter and verse divisions don’t serve us well and also where we bump up against the limits of a short daily reading. As I explained yesterday, those last few verses are tied to what came before because in his rebuke, Jesus closes each of the arguments recorded in chapter 20. So it had to be included yesterday. But it also leads in to the story of the widow and her offering, the disciples’ admiring the Temple. So it had to be included today.
Luke arranged it so Jesus rebukes the religious leaders for cheating widows out of all their property, and then the very next thing we see is a poor widow making her offering at the Temple. This should cause us to ask: what happened to this woman? Is she one of the widows Jesus is talking about? Is she giving her last pennies to the Temple after its leaders have stolen everything else she had? At the very least, the system for care of widows that Torah mandated had failed this woman. Her religious and political leaders had failed her. Worse, they likely were the direct cause of her poverty.
But she gives anyway. She does what the rich ruler could not do. Like Zacchaeus, she can part with her money. Beyond anything we’ve seen so far, she can even give to the very people who have robbed her of all. Sort of like a man who will die for the sins of all – even the sin of killing him. The widow and her mite are the very form of the Gospel.
And then we get this weird scene where the Galilean disciples act like tourists in the big city, sightseeing and marveling at the wonderful architecture of the Temple. Herod’s Temple. In an effort to appease the Jews, the Romans had funded an expensive remodeling and expansion of the Temple. Given how the Seleucids fared a century earlier when they desecrated the Temple (sparked the Maccabean revolution), this was a smart move by Rome (they were often willing to buy peace when they could). The irony here is that the same people who argued paying tax to Caesar was treason had no qualms worshiping in the Temple he paid for. In a sense, what Jesus says of the coin (give back to Caesar what belongs to him) can also be said of the Temple. Rome paid for it. And Rome later came to collect it.
Josephus tells us that during the Jewish War many false prophets encouraged people to retreat to Jerusalem for safety and then to remain in Jerusalem. They claimed God was going to appear and miraculously deal with the Romans. The rebel leaders (who were also tyrants) used these false prophets to keep desertion down. The day the Temple was destroyed, false prophets told people to go up to the Temple to experience the Lord’s deliverance. What they experienced was seeing the Temple burnt to the ground and being slaughtered in mass by the Romans. Josephus also tells us that the Romans found a tremendous treasury at the Temple (“all the wealth of the Jews” is how he describes it), money, garments, furniture, and other riches, all stockpiled in the Temple complex. All of this was either taken by the soldiers or destroyed in the fire.
Some of this widow’s belongings may have been part of that hoard. The Temple had become quite literally a den of thieves, the place where they pile up their stolen treasure. And the claims of the ‘prophets’ did not lead people to safety or salvation, they led people directly to destruction. And so it goes with religion. God hates religion when it only serves as a mask for human villainy. I have been describing Luke’s main theme as reversal and here we see the reason. We have a tendency to use religion for our own benefit – well, we think it is for our benefit, but we only think that because our view of what is best for us is obscured by our own selfishness. Self-centeredness leads us to hoard, we develop an insatiable appetite for various things – wealth, possessions, ecstatic experiences, honor, status, power, etc. – and we use religion to mask these hoards with a veneer of piety.
The Gospel is the opposite of all that. There is no hoarding in the kingdom. The kingdom is the widow giving her last penny. The kingdom is Zacchaeus giving his wealth freely and widely. The kingdom is Jesus pouring out his life for our sins. The kingdom is the Spirit giving life renewing words and power through us for other people. There is no hoarding in the kingdom. Hoarding leads to destruction. Giving leads to life.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible. New Living Translation copyright© 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale HousePublishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.