Sometimes you know what the sermon is going to be before the pastor even says a word. Certain Bible stories and Scripture passages naturally lead to familiar principles and well-worn applications. It’s not always easy to fight off that arrogant “Been There, Done That” feeling—especially for those of us who grew up in the church.
This passage from Luke’s gospel might prompt a similar response at first glance. Luke records a familiar vignette from the days leading up to Christ’s arrest and execution.
And [Jesus] looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury. And He saw a poor widow putting in two small copper coins. And He said, “Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all of them; for they all out of their surplus put into the offering; but she out of her poverty put in all that she had to live on.” (Luke 21:1-4)
You might expect a sermon on that passage to be a short treatise on self-denial, selflessness, humility, sacrificial giving, or vows of poverty—or some other point that is routinely wrung out of those verses. But as John MacArthur explains in his commentary on Luke’s gospel, those meanings and applications are utterly foreign to what is commonly known as the story of “The Widow’s Mites.”
All those ideas, however, are imposed on the narrative; Jesus drew no principle regarding giving from her behavior. The text does not record that He condemned the rich for their giving, or commended the widow for hers. There is no judgment made regarding the true nature of her act, nor is anything said about her attitude, or the spirit in which her gift was given. Since Jesus made no point about giving, neither should the interpreter.  John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Luke 18-24 (Chicago: Moody Publishers 2014), 168.
That might come as a shock to you—it certainly did to me when I first heard John’s sermon on this passage (titled “Abusing the Poor”). But in spite of seemingly universal agreement that this brief passage applies to the act and attitude of our giving, that’s simply not the point of the story.
It is not, as many suggest, a sweet little sidebar about God’s pleasure in our self-sacrifice. If it was, that meaning would be explicit in Christ’s words. It is simply bad hermeneutics to infer, suppose, or jump to conclusions about the point of this passage that extend beyond Christ’s recorded words.
Moreover, if you’re determined to make these verses a lesson about giving—that is, if you interpret Christ’s statement as an affirmation of the widow’s gift—the only legitimate point you can draw from the text is that God wants you to give absolutely everything you have, and resign yourself to a life of destitution. And we know that’s not biblical, because God’s Word is clear elsewhere about the importance of being a good steward with your money.
In fact, the only instance when Christ ever told anyone to give away everything they had was during His conversation with the rich young ruler (Matthew 19:21). And we know that the Lord’s words were not a prescription for an alternate means of salvation or a pattern for giving, but a test of the young man’s true affections.
So if this anecdote from Luke’s gospel has nothing to do with giving, what is the point? Why did Luke and the Holy Spirit include it in this gospel account?
The first step to making sense of Luke 21:1-4 is to understand that these verses do not represent a change of topic or train of thought—that they belong in the immediate context of everything Christ said before and after the widow deposited her offering.
We need to remind ourselves from time to time that, while the words of Scripture were directly inspired by the Holy Spirit, the chapter and verse numbers are not. In this case, the chapter break inserts a speed bump into Luke’s gospel that the apostle never intended. The verses immediately prior (Luke 20:45-47) contain Christ’s scathing critique and condemnation on the Jewish religious elite.
And while all the people were listening, He said to the disciples, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love respectful greetings in the market places, and chief seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets, who devour widows’ houses, and for appearance’s sake offer long prayers. These will receive greater condemnation.”
And who were the scribes? Here’s how John MacArthur explains their place in first-century Israel:
Not all Pharisees were scribes, but the scribes were primarily Pharisees, who were interpreters and teachers of the law of Moses and the traditional rabbinic writings. Their teaching provided the theological framework for the Pharisees’ legalistic system of works-righteousness. The scribes were the dominant force in Judaism, not only theologically, but socially. Their views affected every aspect of life, and they also handled all legal matters, including property, estates, and contracts. They were revered, and given the respectful title of Rabbi (Matthew 23:7).  The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Luke 18-24, 163.
The influence the scribes wielded was corrupted on several fronts, and their hypocrisy infected the entire nation. Christ’s criticism emphasized several examples of their overweening pride. But their corruption wasn’t limited to haughtiness and self-promotion. As John MacArthur explains,
[Jesus also exposed] a more sinister aspect of their hypocrisy—their rapacious greed that led them to prey on the most defenseless members of society. That the scribes would stoop so low as to “devour widows’ houses” graphically illustrates the intense desire for wealth that characterizes false teachers (cf. Micah 3:5, 11; 2 Peter 2:1-3, 14). . . . The Old Testament teaches that widows are to be protected and cared for (Exodus 22:22; Deuteronomy 10:18; 14:29; 24:17-21; 27:19; Psalm 68:5; 146:9; Proverbs 15:25; Isaiah 1:17; Jeremiah 22:3; Zechariah 7:10), but the scribes consumed their meager resources. They took advantage of their hospitality, cheated them out of their estates, mismanaged their property, and took their houses as pledges for debts that they could never repay.  The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Luke 18-24, 166.
The moment Jesus finished denouncing the scribes for “devouring widows’ houses” (Luke 20:47), His audience saw the reality of His words borne out in vivid, tragic detail. The widow’s offering was a devastating illustration of the wicked religious system Christ had just condemned. Through her final offering, this widow succumbed to an institutionalized scheme of works-righteousness that had bled her dry. In fact, it likely killed her, as Scripture tells us she gave up “all that she had to live on” (Luke 21:4) in her last-ditch effort to obtain a blessing.
In that sense, her gift was not an example for us to follow but a warning about how false religion preys on people.
As the story of this widow reveals, deceptive, self-righteous religion preys on the weak, the desperate, and the defenseless. Far from being pleased with her giving, Jesus was angry that the so-called worship she had bought into had taken her last cent. The Lord would go on to pronounce judgment on that very apostate Judaism in the next section. [See Luke 21:5-6; and for a more in-depth study of Christ’s condemnation, see John MacArthur’s sermon “Abusive Religion.”]
Money has always been at the heart of satanic religion (cf. Luke 16:14; 19:46; 1 Peter 5:2), consequently abuse of the poor by false religious systems has continued from our Lord’s day to our own.  The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Luke 18-24, 170.
The corruption of first-century Judaism ought to sound familiar to us. Countless men and women today likewise give what little money they have—and often more than they can afford—to prosperity preachers, faith healers, and other religious hucksters in search of physical and financial blessings. Christian television is dominated by ministries that make outrageous promises of health and wealth if viewers will only first “sow a seed” of financial faith into their coffers. But the only ones who ever get rich are the vile false teachers themselves, while more and more people fall for their lies.
Just as Christ warned His disciples about the danger the scribes presented, we need to be bold and faithful about calling out the wolves who prey on people in God’s name. We need to be clear about what God’s Word says in all matters, and what it doesn’t—leaving these charlatans no room to operate their blasphemous Ponzi schemes.
That’s the lesson we need to take away from the story of this widow—that God’s people cannot idly stand by while false teachers twist the truth and line their pockets in God’s name. We need to be outraged when wolves attempt to fleece God’s flock. And we need to protect and care for those who are most susceptible to their lies.