Widows in first-century Jewish culture often suffered in grinding poverty, for they did not have husbands to provide for them and had few options for earning an income themselves. Thus, the scribes committed a particularly grievous sin when they covered their theft of widows’ resources with a pretense of piety (Luke 20:45–47). Back then, as is sometimes the case even today, false teachers took advantage of their position as religious leaders to take from widows more than they should, probably by promising these women answers to their prayers and other such things in exchange for gifts.
In today’s passage we read about widows again, for Jesus uses the giving of a widow to show us what sincere devotion to the Lord looks like. While Jesus was teaching in the temple, He looked up and saw some rich individuals putting money in the offering box and a widow putting two small copper coins in the same or a similar receptacle (21:1–2). One commentator reports that the temple had thirteen large horn-shaped containers that were narrow at the top and wide at the bottom where people could contribute their offerings.
The unit of money translated as “small copper coin” was the smallest coin in circulation in the ancient Holy Land, representing less than 1 percent of a denarius, which was the average daily wage. It was a meager amount of money, nothing in comparison to the much larger gifts given by the rich, whose donations provided much more support for the temple’s functions. In proportion to net worth, however, the widow’s two small coins were far greater than what the rich contributed. They had much more left after they gave, but Jesus says that the tiny sum of money was all that the widow had. Her gift, therefore, was a greater sacrifice (vv. 3–4).
Jesus’ teaching indicates that we cannot measure piety simply by looking at the amount a person gives. God is not more pleased with large gifts than with small gifts; He looks to the heart, and a small gift is a display of greater faith than a large gift is when the small gift is a greater sacrifice in proportion to its giver’s means than a large gift is in proportion to the wealth of its giver. The poorer among us should not think that their gifts are insufficient for the kingdom, and the wealthier should not think that they are doing more for the church than others with their greater donations.