The earliest manuscripts of the New Testament had no chapter divisions. It's a pity that the later editors of the New Testament placed one here to artificially separate Jesus' words about the proud religious authorities and the poor widow. For they were intended by Luke to show a stark contrast between hypocritical commitment to God and sacrificial generosity to God by a woman who owned practically nothing.
I should hasten to say that Jesus knew well that there were exceptions to his unflattering picture of the "scribes" in Jerusalem in his day. One author has observed:
"In turn Jesus criticizes the Pharisaic scribes in particular for their hypocrisy … in knowing the Scriptures and how to enter the kingdom of God yet, by placing insurmountable legal burdens on people, preventing them from entering it. They also live a lifestyle which the disciples are warned not to follow (cf. Mt 23:1-36 par.Lk 20:45-47). At least those scribes who were members of the Sanhedrin shared the guilt of handing Jesus over to be crucified. Yet there is evidence that Jesus found some of the teaching of the scribes acceptable ([on Elijah coming before the Messiah:] Mk 9:11-13), and it is reported that on one occasion Jesus complimented a scribe for his understanding of Scripture (Mk 12:34) (IVP Jesus and the Gospels, sub "Scribes. 5").
Some were honest and sincere men. But all too many—especially of those who had the most to lose in authority, power and prestige if Jesus were to be acknowledged as the Messiah—fit this picture to the "T"! Furthermore, Jesus (and Luke, who wrote decades later, after Jerusalem fell) surely did not intend this picture only to show a historical contrast: it was also to form a kind of paradigm against which all future generations of people who read the Bible might see the unflattering contrast possible when people (including nominal "Christians") who professed to be "religious" disobeyed God's commands to be merciful and generous to those in need, as well as to be generous in giving to the work of God.
The picture of the "scribes" is one of preening self-centeredness. Their dress as well as the deference given to them by others by seating them in the prominent places at public ceremonies was intended to mark them not only as the most learned of men, but also as the most godly. The public flaunting of this image was the very opposite of Jesus' teaching, that his disciples do their acts of kindness and mercy in secret.
But Jesus adds another aspect that is usually less noticed, but which brings this description of the scribes in direct juxtaposition to the following incident of the poor widow's generous offering: they "devour the savings of widows" (v. 47). What was Jesus referring to here?
Opinions of commentators differ. But it is probable that, as one such commentator wrote: "Apparently they misused their responsibility as legal arbiters (… Luke 12:13)." In at least some cases this was done in order to free a son who inherited his father's estate from the obligation to support his widowed mother, thus overriding the obligation to "honor your father and your mother" of the Ten Commandments (see Mark 7:9-13, the "Corban" principle of the scribes). In this way, the ancient equivalent of today's TV bankruptcy lawyers found a legal loophole allowing them to deny to impoverished parents their legal and moral right to be supported by their wealthy sons! Such unscrupulous nit-picking interpretations of the law of Moses were unfortunately not rare in Jesus' day. And the "scribes" who practiced it were well paid by their clients.
A rather depressing picture, isn't it? Enough to almost make a reader decide to have nothing to do with any organized religion. But we must not be so tricked by the Devil, who uses charlatans in every age of history to throw a bad light on even sincere and honest religious behavior. And unfortunately, under the excuse that such outrageous behavior is what makes good news and good entertainment, our TV and movies rarely show rabbis, priests or pastors—when performing their religious (vs. social) duties— in a good light, but always as hypocrites. The result is that what are rare exceptions come to be regarded by naive TV and movie audiences as the normal and expected behavior of pastors, priests and rabbis. This kind of behavior criticized by Jesus may have been exhibited by a minority of the Jewish leaders in his own day. But he exposed it, and it is in the gospels as a warning to leaders today who might be tempted to practice it.
The widowJesus was apparently seated as he taught in the temple courtyard. This was the customary posture for rabbis teaching. Luke therefore tells us that he "looked up" from his position, sitting on the floor, and watched the wealthy classes of Jerusalem ostentatiously putting their offerings into the collection box of the temple. We don't know how much they put in, but apparently they were impressing many who saw them. At the same time a poor widow, identifiable as "poor" by her dress and bearing, dropped in two small copper coins (Greek lepta), the equivalent of what a low-paid laborer would earn in an hour—not calculated to impress anyone. Yet Jesus knew that it amounted to what might feed this woman for a week—it was for her an enormous sacrifice. But so that this would not be lost on those seated around him, listening for understanding of God and his guidance for life, he said loud enough for all to hear:
"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" (Luke 21:3-4).She didn't do this to be seen. For what casual observer would be impressed by such a small gift? She didn't do this grudgingly. No one was auditing her income tax return. She did it because she loved God. She wanted to do her part to support the work of the priests and the charitable ministries of the Temple! Remember Jesus' words to his disciples: "Where your money is—that's where your heart will also be" (see Luke 12:33-34). Where is mine? Where is yours? How do we know?