Often much is made of the coinage, the two mites, in the Poor widow story in Mark 12 (see v. 42). Many assume, too quickly, that the widow’s offering is placed “voluntary” in one of the thirteen trumpet-shaped vessels used to receive the various offerings by those entering the temple courts. Some offerings were obligatory, related to the temple tax and sin offerings; some were free-will and contributions of charity. Nothing in the text necessitates that the widow’s offering was voluntary. In fact, the scene and the wider context suggest that the two coins (leptons), which equaled a quadran, were more likely related to the temple tax or sin offering than to the voluntary free-will offering. The widow’s offering was worth less than one hundredth of a denarius or one hundredth of a day’s wage. This amount was capable of purchasing a “handful of flour.” According to OT Levitical provisions, if someone’s means are insufficient for even the two turtledoves or two young pigeons, then a tenth of an ephah of fine flour may be substituted for the sin offering (Lev 5:11; 14:21–32). Interestingly, there is also evidence that some temple authorities had viewed the offering of flour with contempt:
Once a woman brought a handful of fine flour, and the priest despised her, saying, “See what she offers! What is there in this to eat? What is there in this to offer up?” It was shown to him in a dream: “Do not despise her! It is regarded as if she had sacrificed her own life” (Lev. Rab. 3.5).
The presence of the two coins in the scene emphasizes the widow’s condition of poverty and suggests her disadvantage (her standing or status) before the leaders in the temple courts, who were to be her advocates, but only had contempt for her.
In addition to experiencing the loss of her spouse, making the widow one of the more vulnerable in Israel, she had been placed into this humiliating predicament by the established authorities and their banking system. The people and system had rendered her estate/house “devoured” by requiring the widow to contribute to that very system her remaining means (i.e., the last of her funds) to live. Jesus condemns the duplicitous temple leadership, their malicious behaviors (12:40c), and the temple system (13:2) that worsened the poor widow’s condition (12:44c) and left her resources now completely “devoured,” which was represented in the poor widow giving her last two coins.
Note: Another possible reading for the contrast Jesus made between the surplus of the wealthy and the widow’s last two coins might suggest that those with the surplus have an oblivious detachment (malicious or banal) from the plight of the poor widow whose life was about to be devoured—they have surplus and her whole life will be devoured—and that those who are called to observe the contrast (i.e., disciples and readers/listeners) are not to do the same.
Adapted from chapter 1 of Wasted Evangelism, "Widows in Our Courts."
Chip M. Anderson, advocate for biblical social action; pastor of an urban church plant in the Hill neighborhood of New Haven, CT; husband, father, author, former Greek & NT professor; and, 19 years involved with social action.