Here’s a striking example of the importance of context (and of the unfortunate effect that chapter breaks and headings can have on our interpretation of the Bible): the story of “the widow’s mite” in Mark 12:41-44:
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
A heartwarming tale of faith in financial adversity, and an encouragement to even the poorest Christian to give what they can afford, knowing that it is the attitude of their heart that counts, not their financial clout. And now please be seated while we collect today’s offering…
So far, so familiar. Now here’s our next biblical story for the day: an account of Jesus teaching in the Temple (emphases added):
As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’
As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.“
Here we have a very different story: Jesus drawing his disciples’ attention to a poor widow as a case study of what he has just been condemning: a repressive religious system that exploits the poor, forcing them “to put in everything they have, all they have to live on” while leaving the rich in comfort; a system that is under God’s judgment and facing its overthrow.
I’m not claiming any great originality for this observation (here’s a good post on this passage by Methodist minister Richard Hall, which makes the same point), but it’s one that bears repetition – given how easily we relapse into sentimentality and Law-think.
A couple of further thoughts, though. The conventional reading of this incident – the one which has given the phrase “widow’s mite” to the language – is entirely about Law: what the widow did, what (by extension) we should do, both in terms of how we give and how we view the giving of others.
However, in the context we can see a strong element of Gospel here. Just as reading about the widow in the context of what precedes and follows it changes our understanding of Jesus’ words, so reading the succeeding paragraph in the light of the widow’s mite helps us see the Gospel there. The announcement that “not one stone will be left here upon another” is revealed as not only a message of judgment on the Temple system, but as a message of hope and liberation for those, like the widow, who are oppressed by it. (See also John 2:19-22, which makes explicit this link between the destruction of the Temple system and the death and resurrection of Jesus.)
Finally: we see here how Jesus manages to unite two perspectives which the rest of us are likely to separate. Some of us will tend to look at the personal aspects of a situation (is what the widow is doing worthwhile? godly?) and perhaps overlook the systemic exploitation within which the personal action is taking place. Others of us will seize hold of the political/economic aspects of the incident and run cheering to the barricades, overlooking questions of personal worth or value.
Jesus combines both: he has compassion and concern for the widow as an individual, without ignoring the systemic exploitation. Conversely, he attacks “the system” without overlooking or denigrating the behaviour of people living within it.