The 15 Most Misunderstood Bible Verses

Jason Micheli —  August 21, 2014 — 2 Comments

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The word to which Inigo Montoya refers in the Princess Bride is ‘inconceivable.’

For many people outside the Kingdom of Florin, it’s inconceivable that another Word doesn’t mean what they think it means.

From the Christmas creche to Christ’s Cross, many of the Bible passages so near and dear to our (the-Lord-laid-it-on-my) hearts don’t mean what we think it means.

Very often it means exactly the opposite of what we think it means- an impressive feat, no? Sometimes Christians read into biblical passages something that is not remotely there at all, what biblical scholars call eisegesis. Other times Christians miss, almost willfully, what is right there in front of them on the page.

From cliched, Christian-speak catch-phrases (‘wherever 2 or 3 are gathered’) to familiar flannel-graphed VBS stories (‘Truly, this was God’s Son’), Christians are guilty of routinely misunderstanding, misquoting, misapplying or just plain MISSING verses of scripture.

So I offer you (in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit) the 15 Most Misunderstood Bible Verses.

#15: The Widow’s Mite

“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 marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor 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.”

Where Can You Find It?

Mark 12.38-44

Luke 21.1-4

What Do You Need to Know First?

The ‘story’ of the widow’s mite (really, Jesus just points to her in the crowd) comes after Jesus has entered Jerusalem, as a mock Caesar, to a Messiah’s welcome.

2 mites equaled 1 quadron in Jesus’ day, the smallest coin in Roman currency. The widow, in other words, offered the modern day equivalent of 2 half-pennies to the Temple treasury in Jerusalem.

What Jesus says about money and the Temple immediately compel the chief priests and the scribes to ‘search for a way to arrest Jesusby stealth and kill him.’ 

Jesus’ notice of the widow’s offering happens within the larger context of Jesus railing about ecclesial greed, collusion with the Empire and his prediction of the Temple’s imminent destruction by God.

How Is It Always Interpreted?

Bottom Line: This widow gives her last mite to the Temple and Jesus is pleased by this and holds her up as a good example.

This is go-to passage for sentimental children’s sermon, passive aggressive stewardship appeals and slap-yourself-on-the-back sermons against the hypocrisy of the rich, powerful or organized religion.

Almost always this passage guest-starring the widow and her mite is used as an illustration of giving as a leap of faith. The (usually) preacher will put all his or her emphasis on the ‘giving all she had to live on’ clause whilst ignoring the obvious, black-and-white (literally) context within which this pericope falls. Consequently, the widow becomes an example to all of us of someone who so trusted God to provide for her that she gave what she did not have to give: her last 2 half-pennies.

Thus Jesus draws for us a ‘contrast between the religious hypocrisy of the scribes and the genuine piety of the poor woman.’

Insert (fabricated) moral of the story:

It doesn’t matter what you give. What matters is the faith in which your gift is given.

Or:

Our offering should be in proportion to what we possess; wherein, the poor widow upstages the rich for her sacrificial generosity.

Or:

We ought to go and do likewise. Give everything and trust the Lord to provide (Cue: Mount, Sermon on)

Besides being willful misreadings of the passage, it’s never said how all these interpretations are rife with opportunities to exploit the vulnerable.

What are the Problems with this Interpretation?

Jesus doesn’t speak one iota about the widow’s faith, attitude, disposition or motivation in giving. Why? Because, as a widow, she had no freaking choice!

 

Jesus, no stranger to ‘go and do’ exhortations, doesn’t say anything of the like.

 

Right before this oft-cited passage, hidden in plain sight, in 12.40, Jesus directs his ire at the caste of the Temple. With these words:

 ‘They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.’

And then 2 painfully obvious verses later Jesus points to a particular widow and says:

‘She out of her poverty has given everything, all she had to live.’

And then 2 painfully obvious verses later, in 13.2, Jesus predicts the destruction of the very Temple to which the widow has given her last penny:

Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’

Why would Jesus celebrate a widow’s impoverished giving to the Temple just after condemning those religious leaders who extort widows?

Why would Jesus praise a widow giving to an institution whose destruction he will praise in just 2 short verses?

What Does It Actually Say?

Jesus condemns the scribes for preying upon widows- the most helpless of people in 1st century Israel- and the Temple system which necessitates it.

Then he sees a poor widow coming in to the Temple grounds and forking over her last penny in the scribes’ coffers. And Jesus essentially says:

‘You see?! That’s what I’m talking about! The Temple system doesn’t hurt the rich who have abundance from which to give to it, but this widow has given every last damn thing has because to them.’

So Jesus isn’t praising the widow’s gift to the Temple.

He’s lamenting a system where she must give it rather than feed herself                                (and possibly her children).

She’s still an illustration, just for a different kind of sermon: she’s a widow who’s had her house devoured. And very soon, Jesus promises, God will devour the scribes’ house. Of worship.

Rather than citing the widow in a sermon meant to gin up a pledge drive, she should be mentioned just before exhorting people of faith to examine how they themselves participate in systems (let’s use Walmart as an example) that exploit the poorest among us for the gain of the rest of us.

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Jason Micheli

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2 responses to The 15 Most Misunderstood Bible Verses

  1. Jesus makes your point but he also praises the widow’s giving. I don’t think it’s an either or thing.

    “Why would Jesus celebrate a widow’s impoverished giving to the Temple just after condemning those religious leaders who extort widows?”

    To contrast their attitudes. It also goes along with “blessed is the poor” and “camel through the eye of the needle”, etc. Despite being oppressed, the widow still gave. She didn’t use oppression as an excuse.

    Why would Jesus praise a widow giving to an institution whose destruction he will praise in just 2 short verses?
    The widow doesn’t know that the temple will be destroyed. Plus you read it as giving to a corrupt religious institution where it seems the more obvious reading is her obedience to God’s word. Today, we have a choice of which church or organization we tithe too. Back then, there was only one choice.

    He also doesn’t really praise the destruction as much as predict it. In fact, I read it more that He laments it.

    “He’s lamenting a system where she must give it rather than feed herself ”
    I just don’t see that. The tithing system was set up by God. There was no standard deduction that was tithe-free like in our income tax. Jesus condemns the scribes and the sellers in the temple. I don’t think He can condemn the system. To do so would be self-contradictory.

    • “Scribal affluence is a product of their ‘devouring the estates of widows under the pretext of saying long prayers’ . . . Through their public reputation for piety and trustworthiness (hence the ‘pretext of long prayers’), scribes would earn the legal right to administrate estates. As compensation they would usually get a percentage of the assets; the practice was notorious for embezzlement and abuse . . . The vocation of Torah Judaism is to ‘protect widows and orphans,’ yet in the name of piety these socially vulnerable classes are being exploited while the scribal class is further endowed . . . [S]cribal piety has been debunked as a thin veil for economic opportunism and exploitation . . . The temple has robbed this woman of her very livelihood (12:44). Like the scribal class, it no longer protects widows, but exploits them.” (Binding the Strong Man, 320-22)

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