Last Sunday we had the privilege of having Dr. Vinoth Ramachandra, Secretary for Dialogue and Social Engagement, IFES (South and East Asia), speak at our worship service. He spoke on the eighth commandment, the call to not steal, but it was his comments on Luke 21:1-4 that really caught my attention.
As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on. (TNIV)
Vinoth pointed out that preachers normally use these verses to teach that in our giving, it is not the quantum that counts. It is our attitude. I think this is a valid interpretation of the passage.
But Vinoth went on to say that one can’t take this passage in isolation from the context. He suggested that we had to read Luke 21:1-4 in the context of the flow of thought that starts from Luke 20:45-47, which reads:
While all the people were listening, Jesus said to his disciples, “Beware of the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.” (TNIV)
In other words there were religious leaders who were getting rich at the expense of the desperately poor.
I began to see Luke 21:1-4 with new eyes. It suddenly hit me that there were rich people in the assembly, while there were those, like the widow, who by putting in her day’s wages, had to go without food that day. What is wrong with this picture? Why weren’t the rich sharing more of their wealth with the poor? Why wasn’t their apparent love for the Lord translated into love for their neighbours?
Vinoth said that some had challenged his reading of the Lucan passages in question. I have, ahem, a Master in New Testament and I felt comfortable with his exegesis, apart from the fact that his preaching pieced my heart.
The division of the Bible into chapters and verses is a relatively new phenomenon.
… the chapters and verses that the Bible has been divided into aren’t the work of the original authors. The present system of chapter divisions was devised in 1205, and our present verse divisions were added in the 1550s. (International Bible Society, “Preface,” The Books of the Bible, Colorado Springs: IBS, 2007, v.)
That means, the gospel of Luke, as it was originally written, would not have had a break between the end of chapter 20 and the beginning of chapter 21. The book would not have been divided into chapters and verses at all. Vinoth is right not to isolate Luke 21:1-4 from what comes before.
And Vinoth can take comfort that New Testament scholars have begun to treat Luke 20:45-21:4 as one pericope. Joel B. Green is one. In his commentary on Luke, he comments on this block of Scripture by pointing out that Luke is purposely contrasting the wealth of the scribes and the rich, with the poverty of the widow.
And thus does Luke draw attention to a system, the temple treasury itself, set up in such a way that it feeds off those who cannot fend for themselves. What is worse, because it is the temple treasury, it has an inherent claim to divine legitimation. How could it be involved in injustice? It is God’s own house! (The Gospel of Luke, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997, 728-729)
Caring for the poor is a key expression of biblical spirituality. In the book of Galatians, where Paul passionately defends the gospel, is recorded an exchange between Paul and the key leaders of the Jerusalem church which includes the call “to remember the poor” as something integral to the Christian faith (Galatians 2:6-10). Therefore the attitude of the poor widow in Luke 21:1-4 is also an indictment of the attitude of the rich who gave generously to the temple but who had closed their hearts to the poor.
I am grateful for the friends in my life who have been blessed materially but who have chosen to live simple lifestyles in order to free their financial resources for missions and for the needy. Their genuine love for their Lord has insulated them from the siren song of consumerism. They have chosen to be rich in good works (1 Timothy 6:18).
There is also a warning here for church leaders and clergy who have capitulated to the temptations of this world. Like the scribes in Luke 20, they have chosen to live lives of power, prestige and luxury on the backs of poor parishioners who have been taught that they have to give generously, probably on the basis of sermons based on Luke 21:1-4. The fate of the opulent temple mentioned in Luke 21:5-6 is a stark reminder that God’s institutions are not beyond judgment and His leaders not exempt from discipline.
I am therefore grateful for the many faithful servants of the Lord who serve without thought for personal gain and with deep humility. I just came back from taking a retreat for some pastors. I didn’t get a chance to poll them as to how they would have interpreted Luke 21:1-4. But to a man (and that included two women) they were humble servants of the Lord and of the church. They demonstrated their exegesis with their lives.