The Widow’s Mite

There’s a story that when the Statue of Liberty was being renovated and restored in the early 1980s and money was being solicited from donors across the country, an envelope showed up with two dimes in it and a note from a young boy, saying: “This is my lunch money for today, but I am sending it for the Statue of Liberty. Please use it wisely.”

If true, this is a modern version of the story of the “widow’s mite” (Mark 12:41-44, Luke 21:1-4), in which a poor widow donated two small “mites,” the lowest denomination coin in the realm, to the Temple treasury.  “Calling his disciples to himself,” Mark tells us, “Jesus said to them, ‘Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.’”

It’s a lovely story, generally well known and well-liked.  I sometimes worry that we like it so much because it’s one of those stories where the rich might seem to get their comeuppance and the poor (whom we associate with ourselves, even though we live in the richest country on earth) get praised.  “Yes, poor people like me are going to heaven and those rich arrogant jerks will finally get what’s coming to them.”

This may not be the best lesson to glean from the story, given that we are a rich people to whom much has been given and so from whom much will be expected. And who, if we are honest with ourselves, generally contribute from our surplus wealth, and not from our need.  So perhaps it would be best to set aside those financial resentments for the moment and consider two other lessons we as a Church might take from the stories of the widow and the young person who sent his lunch money with the note to “Use it wisely.”

The first lesson is one that it seems certain bishops need to learn.  That money in the “Temple treasury” is not your money.  It is that widow’s money that she has entrusted to the Church and to your stewardship.  Your God-given duty is to use it wisely and worthily.


Of each and every expenditure, a bishop should ask: Is this use of this money worthy of the poverty and love of the person who gave it?  Did the widow put her last two coins in the collection plate so that you could fly first-class to Rome?  Did she donate so that you could hand out expensive gifts to those with whom you are currying favor?

There are few things more disgusting than prelates who treat donated money as though it has become their property to do with as they will.  I don’t suppose this would be a good time to mention that at their last meeting in November the U.S. bishops voted to increase the tax on every diocese in the country by 3 percent, to fund the various activities of the USCCB.  I trust they will use it wisely.

The second lesson, however, is one for all of us and is undoubtedly more important because less directly “financial.”  Whatever gifts or talents we have, they are enough if we offer them to God. Especially during troubling times such as these, when large-scale historical “movements” in the world and the Church seem so far beyond us, it is tempting to say, “Me?  What can I do?  What can I give?”  If God gave it to you, it is enough.

Recall the story of the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes. (John 6:1-14)  Seeing the crowd of “some five thousand,” Jesus says to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?”  Philip answers, “It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each person to have one bite.”  Another of the disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish.”  The rest, as they say, is history.  Jesus took the two small loaves and the fish and fed the entire crowd.  And after all had eaten their fill, the leftovers filled twelve baskets.

This is another famous story, for good reason. But we don’t want to miss the importance of one of the minor characters:  the young boy. The five loaves and two fish were his entire food for the day.  When the apostles asked him, “Can we have those?” we can imagine him replying:  “These?  Not these.  This is all I’ve got.  Go find a rich guy with a big crate of bread.”  But he didn’t.  He gave the little he had.  Not much, but it was enough.

Imagine being him and having people ask you:  “You gave the five loaves and two fish that fed five thousand?”  What do you say to that?  “Well, sort of.  It’s not like I fed five thousand people.”  “No, but if you hadn’t given the five loaves and two fish, it wouldn’t have happened.  It was like Mary.  You did your part; you said ‘yes.’  And that made all the difference.”

So, dear friend, you give your lousy five loaves and two fish freely, selflessly, without a desire for profit or advancement, and then just trust that God can feed thousands with whatever gifts He has given you.  This is the strange mathematics of love:  it multiplies.  The selfless gift of love of two people creates a third, and then another and another until there are thirty-five grandchildren.  A small society of friends can produce good effects that expand exponentially, on their own, without the mechanisms of power, propaganda, and social control.

It’s a big Church, a big world, with billions of people.  “What can I do?” Give your two cents worth.  Give your loaves and a couple of fish.  And then let God do His God thing.


*Image: The Widow’s Mite by Émile Auguste Hublin, 1869 [Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, Coventry, England]

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.