The story of the widows, especially the one with two mites not only fits within missional paradigm for Christian discipleship. The story echoes Jesus’ uniqueness with eyes that penetrated both the widow’s circumstances and heart. (Mk 12:38-44). The widow’s mite story reminds us that God’s kingdom works on entirely different principles than the kingdom of this world. Jesus, in this last event of His public ministry was teaching the people about the hypocrisy of the scribes. The widow in her poverty stands in stark contrast to the scribes in their pride and arrogance. The widow’s gesture was a sign of complete abandonment to God. The widow’s missional giving and lifestyle reminds us of the idea of widow as an “altar of God,” which emerges in the early Church literature. Thurston Bonnie Bowman in one of his works points us to the importance of the altar of God as a missional and focal point in public worship.[1] According to him, widow was called an “altar of God” because she received alms, and also because she interceded for the Church community.[2] Widow as “altar of God” calls for purity as a witness and intercessor for the church community.

The word altar comes from the Latin words altārium and adolere, which mean “high” and “to ritually burn or sacrifice.” Altar, first manifestly denotes the Lord, hence the building of an altar signifies a representative of the Lord (Deut 33:10, Lam 2:7, Ps 43:3, 4; 26:6). Abraham built first altar mentioned in the Bible in order to live a life of faith bearing in mind that ‘everything that we value or love can be placed on the altar.’ The altar reminds us that we do no need to keep anything for ourselves and that our lives here on Earth are meant for God and God alone.

Secondly, altar missionally signifies witness and representative worship that points people to God. Altar is pure, hence one of the functions of the altar was to serve as a place of witness upon which to sacrifice. The altar built on the east side of the Jordan River served as a reminder, a witness to future generations that the tribes that settled there had vowed to remain faithful to God. In the book of Joshua, we read that, “the children of Reuben and the children of Gad called the altar Ed; ‘for it shall be a witness between us that the Lord is God.’ When the purity of the altar as witness and representative worship is compromised, altar becomes idolatrous. In response to God’s judgement, Isaiah explained how the people would finally realise the uselessness of idols and how powerless other gods of humans are to save them, hence ‘he shall not look to the altars, the work of his hands…(Is 17:7-8). In Lamentation, the Lord cast off His altar, an “altar,” a representative worship (human to God) which had become idolatrous (Lam 2:7). In Hosea, we read how Ephraim has multiplied altars to sin; ‘altars have been unto him to sin’ (Hos 8:11, 10:8). Altars also denotes witness against idolatrous worship. The Bible says, “In the day that I shall visit the transgressions of Israel upon him, I will also visit the altars of Bethel, and the horns of the altar shall be cut off (Amos 3:14). It is sad to note that “altars” that denote purity of witness and representative worship can become idolatrous.

The widow’s mite points us to the purity and functions of the altar in the Bible and in the early Christian antiquity and this  is ‘essential to understand the motif of the widow as the altar of God.’ The widow’s mite story not only witness and offers ‘a challenging Christian ethos,’ her sacrificial giving and lifestyle models ‘a whole way of life for Christian discipleship.’ The Gospel reading from Mark 12 is a heart-breakingly true missional text that many of us can identify with whether as “altar of God” or “altar of idolatry” (vv.38-44). Jesus’ description of the scribes in their lust and desire for recognition – seeking the best positions, stealing from the helpless, yet making a pretence of being religious suggests them as altar of idolatry and sin. Widowhood was one of the most vulnerable positions of the time. Jesus drew the attention of the disciples to this particular widow, who brought delight to His heart as His altar. While the rich apportioned a small percentage of their wealth, the widow, with her little, gave all she had to God. The widow’s wholehearted, sacrificial devotion won the Lord’s praise and commendation. The widow as God’s altar recognised that everything belongs to God and because she was in God’s hands, she could willingly and joyfully offer all she had to Him.

Beyond its colloquial phrase, “the widow’s mite,” the widow is more missional than heroic in giving and living. She did not just participated and contributed to a system that exploits her. She provides a renewing witness and interpretation of living missionally within system that are  corrupt, proud, arrogant, oppressive and dehumanising. While the Pharisees, the exploitative scribes, represents a manipulative stewardship, altar of idolatry; the widow stands as God’s altar, a witness, a missional model, example and act of nobility and self-sacrificial contribution towards renewing an unholy and unjust system.  Beyond the physical altar as a sacred place in any church, the widow as a “altar of God” calls us to living a life of faith, offering ourselves up in devotion, sacrifice and gifts to God. The widow in each of us as “altar of God” means offering everything we are and everything that we have to God. As “altar of God” ‘our purpose is in holy service, not in the collection of possessions.’ As “altar of God” we are here for God, we put everything on the altar, including our Isaac. The widow as ‘altar of God’ in each of us summons us to a complete abandonment to God.

[1] Thurston, Bonnie Bowman, “The Widow as Altar of God,” Society of Biblical Literature Seminar Papers 24 (1985): 286.

[2] Thurston, Bonnie Bowman, The Widows (Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1989), 107-111.