In Matthew 6:1, Jesus says:
Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. [NIV]
But when the poor widow imposes herself as the rich make their donations to the temple treasury, Jesus celebrates her act with [Luke 21:3]:
Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them.
Jesus justifies his opinion in financial terms: the widow’s gift was a far larger part of her wealth than were the larger contributions of the wealthy. But why does that make a difference?
I was asked one Sunday to help with the collection. When the time came to combine the plates, I found myself under a strange compulsion, and arranged matters so that the collection ended up in my hands. The deacon was a little piqued when I carried the plate up to the front of the hall. As I set it on the table, my hands hovered over it, and I felt the angel thoughts rising up out of it. On a later occasion, when I did this while the minister held the collection, I felt one wing through my chest.
In Genesis, it is said that God made us in his image. We know that the Almighty does his work in love, so one way of understanding that likeness is that we are designed so that actions taken in love are far more powerful than those done selfishly.
I think that this is why Jesus celebrates the widow. We might wonder why she made this offering: it could have been as a political statement, a reminder to the rich of why they gave. Perhaps she had longed all her life to make a contribution, and in her last days, took her wealth to the temple in gratitude for God’s provision through the Law. Or perhaps she had woken that morning with Jesus’ voice in her ears, telling her to seek under a stone for two copper coins to bring to the temple.
Whatever the reason, I believe that Jesus is recognizing that her intentions would take root in the entire collection. The rich put nothing of themselves into the treasury, because their interest was in their own image. Once the money was surrendered, they walked off with their pride. The widow, though, brought her obedience, her gratitude and her thoughts for those in greater need. In that surrender, she invested those intentions in the entire offering. No one touching it could avoid being influenced by those impulses.
When I give money, I always give to a charitable organization. I know that many among the poor lack discipline, and so direct donations of cash can be a temptation. But when asked by a homeless person to give, I never sneer. I smile, and apologize without explanation. As I pass, my thoughts linger on them, tendering silently my hope that they will find strength and assistance that will allow them to find the security, hope and opportunity to provide for themselves.