The Gospel Doctrine #17 manual objective is “to help class members understand that we must be willing to sacrifice the things of this world to obtain a place in the kingdom of heaven.”
To consider how Jesus’ comments on the widow’s offering should shape our desires and actions.
I’d like to consider the story of the widow’s offering (see Mark 12:41-44) on several different levels:
Jesus is described as being “over against the treasury” (Mark 12:41). Mark sometimes uses this kind of “stage direction” to make a theological point; in this instance, the point would be that Jesus was opposed to the temple. This might sound strange to Latter-day Saints, but the point isn’t that Jesus was “against” the temple, in general, but rather that he was against the temple organization in his day, which was corrupt. This raises interesting questions about how we deal with imperfect people, institutions, and programs. The fact that the answer to this dilemma is not always obvious is reflected in the fact that Mark’s Gospel seems to be more negative toward the temple than Luke’s, suggesting that even the gospel writers did not entirely agree on how to interact with a corrupt temple. (For more on this topic, see Reading between the Lines: Luke’s Omission of Mark 14:3–9) But note that Jesus’ (literal) opposition to the temple does not make it impossible for him to praise a woman who is donating to that temple. Nothing is black and white here.
Note this pattern in Mark’s text:
A evil scribes denounced (12:38–40)
B the widow’s offering (12:41–44)
C teachings about true discipleship (13:1–37)
B’ the anointing (14:3–9)
A’ the plot to kill Jesus (14:10–11)
Notice that the teachings about how to be a disciple in the face of suffering and trials (Mark 13) are sandwiched in between two stories of model disciples: the widow’s offering and the anointing of Jesus. (For more on the story of the anointing, see “She Hath Wrought a Good Work”: The Anointing of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel) There are many parallels between the widow’s story and the anointer’s story, including doubled references to the poor, the significant actions of a silent woman, the use of money, and a “verily I say unto you” saying from Jesus that proclaims that each woman has given all that she had despite the vast (on the order of 20,000 times) disparity in the value of the widow’s mites and the anointer’s oil. Each woman is praised for giving all that she has, whatever that might be. This praise from Jesus should be comfort for those who give all (however small) and a prod to those who hold back (however much they give). Then, each of these women’s stories is literally surrounded by an example of how not to be a disciple of Jesus, first with reference to the evil scribes and secondly with reference to the plot to kill Jesus. Note that the positive examples of discipleship are women and the negative examples are men. The widow sharply contrasts with the scribes who seek attention and recognition, but Jesus holds the widow up as a positive example while criticizing the scribes.
It is significant that the widow does absolutely nothing to call anyone’s attention to her. It is Jesus who notices her silent action and calls his disciples’ attention to it. Something profound happens in this story as the woman goes about her own business, not seeking attention, but earns it from Jesus anyway. All those who labor in obscurity should be heartened by the idea that Jesus notices them. Note how Jesus says that she has put in more than all of the wealthy people: clearly, Jesus’ math calculates value differently than the raw value.
Echoes of 1 Kings 17
The story of the widow comes into sharper focus when we compare her to another widow in scripture: the famine victim in 1 Kings 17 who feeds the prophet her very last bit of food. That widow not only experiences the miracle of a replenished food supply, but also is able to call upon the prophet when her son dies; he brings him back to life. If the story of the widow’s mites was meant to echo 1 Kings 17, then the comparison makes clear that everyone—even poor widows on the margins of society—are entitled to divine aid through all of their challenges. They are not exempt from trials of their faith, either. The implication of the comparison is that the widow in the temple has, through her faith and her choices, positioned herself to receive God’s blessings of watchcare.
A major theme in the Old Testament is the importance of caring for widows and orphans as the most vulnerable members of society. In Mark 12, this dynamic is inverted as the scribes devour widows’ estates and the widow supports the temple. On the one hand, this is condemned. But it also speaks to “the last becoming first and the first last” as the widow takes an opportunity to serve instead of being served; Jesus calls attention to her example of discipleship. A widow was regarded as a lowly estate; Jesus turns her into an example for all to follow and thus elevates her. He elevates her as a widow, acting as an agent unto herself, not as a potential wife or mother.
The widow can be understood as a “type” of Christ since she silently, humbly gives “all that she had” and “all her life” (KJV: “living”) to God. She is an example of consecrating all, despite the sins of those to whom she is giving this gift. To the extent that her gift seems illogical, extravagant, or wasted, the same could be said about Jesus!
There are, of course, other prisms through which this story could be refracted and examined. But suffice it to say that her small gift becomes vast when Jesus consecrates it through his attention to her.
Related Mormon Women Project Interviews
The Heart of His Servant, Siu Man
From the scriptures, I learned that there are still works for me to do in this life. I learned to accept God’s will and continue to have faith and hope. I am grateful that Heavenly Father gives me a strong mind, even though my body is weak, so that I am able to overcome the challenges in my life. I feel God’s love every single day in my life. In return I am willing to be His servant. I will continue to serve Him and His children with all that I can offer.
Finding a Lifeline, Rhyll Anne Croshaw
It’s like Elder Maxwell said: All that we have to give is our will, everything else is a gift to us, but we have one thing. I have one thing that is just mine and that’s my will. If I give that to God and I can trust Him because I know that He loves me, and He wants all the happiness in the world for me. If I can trust Him with my will, He will make wonderful things happen. That doesn’t mean that painful things are going to go away. In Mosiah 27 it talks about how the Lord didn’t remove the heavy burdens that were on the people’s backs. He didn’t remove them, but he made it feel as though they were not there. And I have written three dates next to that scripture where I knew that’s what God was doing in my life.
Other Related Women’s Voices
The Relief Society Role in Priesthood Councils, Barbara S. Smith
The Lord herein points the way for the sons and daughters of God. If we who believe will give all that we have, a way will be opened so that we can alleviate suffering as it comes to our attention. None of us is exempt from dedicating our lives to this principle. Brethren, the Relief Society presidents of the Church are anxious to share of their abundance and even all their ‘living’ as you place them in a situation where they can act with you in the priesthood councils of the Church to successfully accomplish this great work of love.
Sacrifice: An Eternal Investment, Carol B. Thomas
Sacrifice is an amazing principle. As we willingly give our time and talents and all that we possess, it becomes one of our truest forms of worship. It can develop within us a profound love for each other and our Savior, Jesus Christ. Through sacrifice our hearts can be changed; we live closer to the Spirit and have less of an appetite for things of the world.
We Are Women of God, Sheri L. Dew
With these privileges comes great responsibility, for “unto whom much is given much is required” ( D&C 82:3 ), and at times the demands of discipleship are heavy. But shouldn’t we expect the journey towards eternal glory to stretch us? We sometimes rationalize our preoccupation with this world and our casual attempts to grow spiritually by trying to console each other with the notion that living the gospel really shouldn’t require all that much of us. The Lord’s standard of behavior will always be more demanding than the world’s, but then the Lord’s rewards are infinitely more glorious—including true joy, peace, and salvation.