Nothing to Live On

Is Jesus asking us to give away everything we have?

The Scripture

Mark 12:38-44
told by Deborah

While he was teaching, the Lord said, “Don’t be dazzled by the big shots who swan around in fancy clothes, eat in the best restaurants, and are favored and fawned over wherever they go. They talk a good game, but their words mean nothing; it’s just so much hot air. Their time is coming.”

He sat down across from the treasury, and watched as people put in their offerings. Many of the rich put in vast sums.

Then a poor widow came up and put in two small copper coins, which are worth about a twenty cents.

Jesus pointed her out to his disciples, “I’m telling you: this poor widow gave more than anyone else. The others gave from their surplus; but she gave from what was essential: she gave everything; all she had to live on.”

Photo of a flower

Reflection by Deborah Beach Giordano
November 12, 2018


peacockWe’re only human: creatures readily entranced and distracted by flashy colors and shiny objects. It’s no wonder that we are impressed by the “beautiful people” with their designer clothing, expensive jewelry, and exotic cars. They’re clearly different from the rest of us; possessed of unique qualities, quite unlike our own. They are somehow special. It was the same in Jesus’ day; those with money and power were looked upon as special: their words admired, their conduct unquestioned, their generosity celebrated.

And who can fault the others, those without, for standing in awe of the enormous sums of money that fell so abundantly from those elegantly manicured fingertips? Imagine a day laborer’s reaction upon seeing a rich man put twenty or thirty denarii into the offering box — a sum that represented a month’s salary to the worker. Surely the rich man was a marvel: blessed by God and cherished by humankind for his generosity. And yet, for the man of wealth, it was mere pocket change; in truth, it “cost” him almost nothing.

The situation was very different, as Jesus pointed out, for the poor widow. Her offering was genuinely costly: it was all that she had to live on. She gave everything.

Wait a minute…

poor widowNow I know — or at least I think I know — that we are meant to admire, respect, and perhaps emulate the poor widow. But I just can’t go there. It seems the purest madness to give away your last dime, “all you have to live on.” We aren’t told what happened next, and I’ve always worried about her. Did she starve? Was she forced to beg on the street, or rely on handouts, or …?

This is a text that the “Prosperity Gospel” preachers are known to cite as proof that we are to give “in faith,” and we will be rewarded. With stuff. But that assumes two things: 1) that the widow was provided for afterward; and 2) that there is no such thing as charity. In this interpretation, we aren’t really giving, but investing: if I give God some money, then God will pay me back in goods and services.

That whole Prosperity Gospel business is … well, simply a business. As Christian theology, it is baseless, deceptive, and, to be blunt, blasphemous. And yet, there’s that poor widow, standing over there where we left her, having given away her last dime. What is she doing there; why did Jesus point her out? Certainly she is faithful, and generous. Her giving definitely cost her something.

But now she is not merely a poor widow, but one in dire straits; at risk of starvation, possibly homeless, vulnerable, defenseless. Her status as a widow means there is no one to provide for her or protect her. It’s not a position any of us wants to be in.

What Kind of Example?

But what if we’re not supposed to put ourselves in her place? What if the poor widow is not meant to serve as an exemplar; what if she’s not as a model to follow, but an example of those who need our charity? Maybe Jesus pointed to the poor widow in the hopes that one of the disciples would stand up and say, “What will happen to her? We can’t let her starve.” Perhaps the lesson is that, instead of being impressed by big donors, we should be concerned for those who have nothing left to give. It isn’t about the giving, but about the needs.

Our charity is to be directed toward others, not for our own enrichment. Giving isn’t a form of reciprocity; we aren’t to give in order to get, but in order to care for one another.

Seen from this perspective, the widow’s story utterly repudiates the prosperity gospel. We give, not for ourselves, but for others. We give with no thought of self; we are charitable not in order to be admired or honored, nor for a “return on our investment.” We give because there are people in need; people who have given everything.

Old Mother Hubbard, bare cupboard

About “Everything”

We tend to equate the idea of having nothing left to live on with homelessness or hunger; with ragged clothing or an empty cupboard: with things. This overlooks the costs of physical and psychological exhaustion: when people are impoverished — mentally, emotionally, spiritually, physically — because of what they have endured. PTSD; chronic fatigue syndrome and lupus; severe illnesses, injuries, and addictions can drain energy and hope from a person’s life: they may have given all that they had. Poverty can take many forms, and our charity and compassion cannot be limited to only one sort.

Veterans Day

The annual recognition of Veterans Day reminds us to take a closer look at those who have given “all that they had” through their service in the Armed Forces. Some men and women gave of themselves for a single enlistment, some for several years, some for their entire career and some gave all that they had — their very lives.

All gave some. Some gave all.
    ~ Howard William Osterkamp, Korean War veteran

Many who returned paid a heavy price; those who lost limbs, hearing, vision; those who lost friends, who witnessed suffering and death; and the loss of innocence that drained life out of all who were there. For some the experience cost them all that they had to give. Some lost their minds, others lost the ability to return to “life as it was,” becoming permanently estranged from the society that sent them off to fight.

folded U.S. flagAnd there is the price paid by the families: those who wait through long silences; lonely, worried, fearful, stressed beyond imagining; those who are reunited with a stranger; and those whose lasting reminder is a neatly folded flag and a permanently broken heart. Poverty can take many forms, and our charity and compassion cannot be limited to only one sort.

Throughout this Season may we be guided and inspired to give, generously — for others, with no thought for ourselves.

May Christ’s grace and peace abide in us and our world,


Suggested Spiritual Excercises

Where do you see the greatest poverty?

How might you alleviate different sorts of poverty? (Hint: it’s not always about money!)

Veteran Information/assistance

There are approximately 20 million veterans in the U.S. In 2014 an average of 20 veterans died from suicide each day. Veterans accounted for 18% of all deaths from suicide among U.S. adults, while veterans constituted 8.5% of the US population.

Resource listing:

Immediate assistance: or 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1