Summary: Using the story of the widow's mite, we learn just how much "two cents" is worth.
I find it interesting identifying the origin of popular words and phrases. No less so that the phrase many of us have often used, “But, that’s just my two cents.” Where did that phrase come from? Depending upon where one searches for the answer, we would discover that the English language contains many specific terms for goods or services that cost two cents (or twopenny, two-pence), some of them very old. We also might discover that over time two cent or twopenny also became descriptors of items that weren’t worth much, if anything. Finally, somewhere in the mid-1920’s, we discover the phrase became attached to the practice of offering unsolicited advice. But, the earliest reference to anything analogous to “two cents” appears in the lesson of the widow's mite in the Gospel of Mark. In that earliest reference, the “two cents worth” has a totally different meaning than how we’ve come to us it. For the widow, the “two cents” was everything. For the wealthy who stood around her it didn’t mean much. I’m afraid we still take our “two cents” to be worth just that—two cents.
You know the scene. Jesus sits and watches as people put their offerings in the offering boxes around the Temple. There were 13 of them, in fact lined along the outside of one of the Temple courtyards. They looked like trumpets, and it was quite the show to watch persons go by and toss their coins into the horns. The noise would be predicated upon the type and number of coins a person dropped into the box (demonstrate with bucket and coins). There were even some who would make a show of their offerings. That might be why Jesus said in the verses just prior to the example of the widow:
38 Jesus also taught: “Beware of these teachers of religious law! For they like to parade around in flowing robes and receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces. 39 And how they love the seats of honor in the synagogues and the head table at banquets. 40 Yet they shamelessly cheat widows out of their property and then pretend to be pious by making long prayers in public. Because of this, they will be more severely punished.” (Mark 12: 38 – 40 NLT)
Remember that “the teachers of religious law” were the experts in the Law of Moses. They were teachers of the Law in schools and synagogues. They expounded on the Scriptures and preserved them. They were also referred to as lawyers and served as judges in the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Supreme Court. Jesus warns His disciples “beware of these teachers of religious law.” He gives several reasons for His warning, but note one in particular: “they shamelessly cheat widows out of their property” (verse 40). They exploited widows. Jews and Christians have always been charged with a ministry of caring for widows. The Apostle James, in his letter says: “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27). So, Jesus charges them with cheating widows rather than visiting them in their distress.
As judges, they also often denied widows justice in court. Remember the parable Jesus told about the widow and the unjust judge in Luke 18? Jesus says:
“In a certain city there was a judge who did not fear God and did not respect man. There was a widow in that city, and she kept coming to him saying, ‘Give me legal protection from my opponent. For a while he was unwilling; but afterward he said to himself, ‘Even though I do not fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow bothers me, I will give her legal protection, otherwise by continually coming she will wear me out” (Luke 18:2-5).
These “judges” tended to exploit widows and deny them justice.
As Jesus sits watching at the Temple, condemning those “teachers” or “judges,” he notices who is putting what in the Treasury, and he notices who makes the show of it. Doubtless, some of those who were putting money in were the very teachers Jesus was warning about, and doubtless they were some of the very ones making a show of it. Then, enter the “poor” widow who puts in her “two cents.”
Just how poor was the widow? The word “poor” suggests she was “utterly helpless, completely destitute, living in such absolute poverty that perhaps even needed necessities for survival such as food and shelter were lacking.” It was highly probable that she did not have another male relative to provide for her needs—no father, son, brother, or even a brother-in-law. Basically, there was no social safety net to capture this poor widow. No social security. No husband’s estate or pension. No pension of her own. She was not like Christie Walton. I actually read this headline this week: “The WalMart heir everyone believed was one of the richest women in America is actually poorer that people thought.” Christie Walton is John Walton’s widow, and she was originally believed to be worth $32 billion dollars. Turns out she’s only worth $5 billion. What a shame. Poorer than people thought, indeed! Definitely not the widow Jesus was referencing. No, I’m afraid we don’t know the value of the two pennies the widow placed in the Temple treasury.