45 While all the people were listening, Jesus said to his disciples, 46 ‘Beware of the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted with respect in the market-places and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at banquets. 47 They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.’”
“As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. 2 He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. 3 ‘Truly I tell you,’ he said, ‘this poor widow has put in more than all the others. 4 All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.’” (Luke 20: 45-47; 21: 1-4)
The two passages about widows are rather unfortunately separated by a chapter division, (which is not present in the original Greek text, of course). Clearly, the two stories are intended to inform each other.
The precise meaning of “They devour widows’ houses” is not given, though it must convey the idea of those who prey upon the vulnerable for dishonest gain. The additional description points to the worst kind of pompous religious hypocrite which Jesus roundly condemns (both here and in many other places).
By contrast, he points to the attitude of the pious widow who, though poor, gives freely to the Temple treasury. Others give out of a relative abundance, but “she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” In this way, she is giving to God, content that he will supply her needs.
Luke is not really making a point about giving but about living. The hypocrites in the first passage are doing something for effect and making a show of their religious practice, whilst their real behaviour exhibits avaricious grasping and sinful manipulation.
The widow in the second passage is not making a show at all, but living simply and honestly and exhibiting a real faith in God to give her life’s necessities.
Clearly, Luke is intending to surprise us with these words of Jesus. It is, I think, a little like the surprise evoked by the statement of Noel Coward: “It’s discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.” We tend to expect the double-dealing of the fraudster, and end by expecting the worst of everyone we meet. And “to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure. In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted.” (Titus 1:15)
But God desires a truthful integrity at the deepest level (“in the inward parts,” Psalm 51:6) and also at the simplest level. I think it was Einstein who said, “Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters.” God is the God of the sparrow that falls, of the number of hairs on my head (or the diminishment thereof). And he is the Lord of the offering of “two mites” or the staff in Moses’ hands.
And because of that, as Shane Claiborne put it so wonderfully, “God is preparing you for something really really small.”
The truth is that next to the cup of cold water in the hands of someone who loves you, the bluster of bullies is paltry indeed. All our posturing and self-importance – that’s the real small-fry stuff of life, even if -for a season- it wields power and devours widows’ houses and crucifies the innocent.
PS The title quote is attributed to Warren Buffett (among others).