The story of the widow’s mite has been taught as the pattern of generosity and has given rise to the ‘mite boxes’ with which we all grew up. Jesus contrasts sharply the attitude and the demeanour of the widow and that of the scribes. A widow in Jesus time and culture was thought to be particularly vulnerable. There was no safety net of social welfare and they were vulnerable to having their property rights removed by unscrupulous speculators.
We know nothing of the woman in the story except that she gave generously and fully. She did not hold back, she gave all she had to live on. She was either very reckless or she was a woman of great faith and generosity. The amount she gave was tiny but the enormity of her sacrifice was the whole heart with which she gave. Her humility in giving without show, her reckless generosity and her faith that God would provide is sharply contrasted with the attitude and motivation of the scribes.
Jesus paints the scribes as ambitious, showy, conceited, corrupt, (they swallow the property of widows) and ostentatious in their show of lengthy prayers. He promises a severe judgement will fall on them for their greed, their pride and their controlling nature. Their pride and self-sufficiency, their race for honours and self-advancement, their careful and ostentatious giving which makes no real inroad on their wealth are all of no ultimate avail to them. Heaven belongs to the generous of heart, not to the highest bidder, not to the loudest, the aggressive, the controlling or the conceited.
One of the Irish words for heaven, ‘flaitheas’ is also the word for generosity. Heaven is simply the generosity of God. The widow’s generosity reflected the heavenly or godly generosity of heaven. That is why she is given as a pattern of good religious practice. The scribes appeared to do all the right things. They prayed, fasted and gave alms, but they did all out of self-interest and self aggrandisement. Saint Thomas More once said that the greatest treason was to do the right thing for the wrong reason. The widow did the right thing. She did it for the right reason. For this, her generosity wins her the privilege of being a pattern of right giving and she is rewarded with a share in the generosity, the flaitheas of theGod who gives beyond measure.