The stories of the Widow of Zarephath and the Widow’s Mite have been mistaken for parallel accounts, teaching us the same lesson. However, they actually are very different and show truth in tension. We give our lives to the Lord as living sacrifices. However, the fact that giving is sacrificial doesn’t always mean that it is Spirit-led.
First Kings chapter 17 contains a remarkable story of supernatural provision. There was a drought in the whole land and God had sent Elijah to drink from a brook and be fed by ravens. Wow! Think of that! If that’s how God provided for Elijah, how much more can He provide for us!
When the brook dried up, God commanded a widow who thought she was going to starve to feed the prophet Elijah! Notice how Elijah received God’s provision. He heard God’s voice and obeyed, even when it sounded a little crazy, like “Ravens are going to feed you” and “I’ve commanded a widow to feed you.”
1 Kings 17:8-15 “Then the word of the Lord came to him: “Go at once to Zarephath in the region of Sidon and stay there. I have directed a widow there to supply you with food.” So he went to Zarephath. When he came to the town gate, a widow was there gathering sticks. He called to her and asked, ‘Would you bring me a little water in a jar so I may have a drink?’ As she was going to get it, he called, ‘And bring me, please, a piece of bread.’
‘As surely as the Lord your God lives,’ she replied, ‘I don’t have any bread—only a handful of flour in a jar and a little olive oil in a jug. I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it—and die.’
Elijah said to her, ‘Don’t be afraid. Go home and do as you have said. But first make a small loaf of bread for me from what you have and bring it to me, and then make something for yourself and your son. For this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: “The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the Lord sends rain on the land.”’
She went away and did as Elijah had told her. So there was food every day for Elijah and for the woman and her family. For the jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry, in keeping with the word of the Lord spoken by Elijah.”
God’s nature is love. Participating in his nature gets our eyes off of our problems and struggles. So often when we have a need, God leads us to a place of joy by enabling us to meet someone else’s need. We also experience supernatural provision for our own needs. Both Elijah and the widow with her son experienced a daily miracle of supernatural multiplication.
Philippians 2:4 “…not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others”.
This story parallels other stories of food being multiplied supernaturally. The fish and the loaves in the New Testament were multiplied when the disciples gave them to the people, and there were plenty of leftovers for their own provision as well. In one of my most popular stories, my grandfather cut up the little can of ham they had and shared it with about a dozen guests. Everybody had seconds, some people had thirds, and there was enough to make sandwiches for the next day. So, my grandfather also experienced provision for his own family as he shared with others.
However, before we start telling everyone in need to sow a “miracle offering,” let’s review the story of the widow’s mite.
We often hear the story of the widow’s mite taught as a Bible lesson encouraging people to give when they have a need of their own, like a parallel to the story of the widow of Zarephath. However, few realize that such an interpretation is taking the story way out of context!
Of course, the chapters and verses we have in the Bible are helpful for finding things, but they were added long after the Bible was written. The immediate context for the story of the widow’s mite is at the end of the previous chapter.
Luke 20:45-47 “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 honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.’”
Luke 21:1-6 “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.’
Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, ‘As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.’”
How could we have so easily missed the context of this story? Jesus was not teaching a lesson in giving out of your need in this verse! He was rebuking the teachers for devouring widow’s houses and making a show of their religion! When he pointed out the widow, he was exposing injustice and oppression! Jesus was saying ‘This is wrong! It’s all she has to live on!’ not ‘This is a great example for others.’
Are you still unconvinced? If you’ve never read the Bible from cover to cover, I encourage you to do so. The Old Testament is full of commands for Israel to care for widows and the disadvantaged. Review Deuteronomy 14:22-29 and Deuteronomy 26:12-13 again to see God’s instructions on commanding Israelites to share the tithe with the widows. They should have been helping her, not devouring her house by taking all she had to live on!
The widow who gave her mite didn’t have a word from God telling her to give all she had to live on to pay for the magnificent temple stones that would soon be torn down. She gave out of compulsion. The widow of Zarephath did have a word from God to give out of her need, and it was not to pay for impressive temple stones but to care for another person who also had a need. The Macedonians, likewise, gave out of their own poverty and of their own volition to care for other people who were hungry, not to adorn a temple made with hands.
The New Testament also teaches that it’s the Church’s responsibility to care for widows who have no family members to help them. Every single offering initiated by the apostles in scripture was taken to help people in need.
Instead of caring for the widows, the teachers of the law were interested in a big religious show and a temple adorned with beautiful stones and “gifts to God.” According to the law, it was their responsibility to take care of the widow. Yet she was giving all she had to live on to adorn their beautiful temple.
While Jesus’s disciples were admiring the temple, Jesus said “You see this? It’s all going to be destroyed in judgment!”
Acts 7:48 and Acts 17:24 both say that God doesn’t dwell in temples made by hands. God desires people for his temple. God doesn’t care about a pretty building adorned with beautiful stones. Jesus wasn’t impressed with that “temple” like his disciples were. He cared about the true temple of God—people.
So, we have one story where God commanded a widow to give her last bit of food to a prophet, and another story where Jesus rebukes the teachers of the law for devouring widow’s houses! This is truth in tension.
Think of a scenario where a person makes $20,000 a year and their family’s expenses are the same. If we tell them they need to tithe, we are commanding them to give what they have to live on—which is exactly what Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for. We sometimes hear testimonies of people giving out of their need and experiencing supernatural provision. This is fine if a person has a word from God to do so, or desires to do so. However, there is no excuse for telling people who we are supposed to help that the answer to their trouble is giving all they have to live on in the offering, rather than helping them!
The widow of Zarephath gave out of extreme poverty, and by doing so she experienced supernatural provision. Yet Jesus was upset when he saw the widow in the temple give her last mite in the offering. He said the Pharisees would be judged most severely for devouring widow’s houses. What was the difference? Let’s look at some other people who gave generously out of extreme poverty:
2 Corinthians 8:1-5, 9 “And now, brothers and sisters, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people. And they exceeded our expectations: They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us…For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”
Verse nine is one of my favorite verses in the Bible. It shows God’s generous heart. Jesus became poor so that through his poverty we might become rich. Notice that the Macedonians gave “entirely on their own” and “pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people.” They gave because they participated in God’s heart. Just as Jesus became poor to make us rich, they were willing to give all they had out of love for others. That is giving in communion with God.
Nobody had to ask them for an offering. There was no coercion. It sounds like Paul was reluctant to accept their gift because they were so poor, which was why they had to beg to be allowed to participate! Some people point to the Macedonians and say “It should hurt when you give,” but notice the contrast between this saying and Paul’s words. Paul’s desire was not that the Macedonians should give until it hurt, but that there would be equality.
2 Corinthians 8:12-15 “For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have. Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, as it is written: ‘The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.’”
This is why the stories of the two widows are actually quite different. The widow of Zarephath gave out of her need to help another person in need. She had one meal left, but Elijah had nothing left! The context of 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 is collecting an offering to meet the needs of impoverished Judean Christians in a time of famine. People are what God cares about. People are God’s temple.
Take Paul’s words about “equality” and supplying each other’s needs and apply them to the story of the widow who fed Elijah. They fit perfectly. Then try applying them to the story of the widow in the New Testament who put the last she had to live on in the offering. They don’t fit.
The New Testament widow who gave her last mite didn’t give to help anybody in need. Neither did she give “entirely on her own.” I believe she was shamed into giving by the boasting and large public offerings of the rich. Contributions were a status symbol. Her offering went not to help people, but to adorn a temple that was about to be destroyed. She gave all she had to live on for the cause of the religious leaders’ pride. Those leaders loved the seats of honor, but God would not honor them!
It seems that the widow who gave her last mite felt like she was nothing if she gave nothing! She could never measure up to those rich people who gave great gifts and had the seats of honor, but at least if she gave a little she wouldn’t be “nothing.”
If you are going to give out of need, give to meet other people’s needs! Don’t give because you feel your worth depends on it. Don’t give as an attempt to “measure up.” Make caring for your own family priority, lest you end up giving a gift and calling it “dedicated to God” rather than honoring your father and mother! Giving out of your need is great if it’s done in faith based on a word from God empowering you to do so.
Let’s continue to examine Paul’s teaching on giving:
2 Corinthians 9:6-12 “Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. As it is written: ‘They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor; their righteousness endures forever.’
Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God. This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of the Lord’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God.”
I think we can’t repeat this part enough: “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion.”
If we are giving because someone told us to, instead of giving according to what we have decided in our hearts, we are violating Paul’s New Testament command on giving. This includes where we give. Are you giving what and where you desire (in your born again, God-filled new heart) to give, or according to what someone has told you?
Giving can never be measured in God’s kingdom by an amount of money, a number, or a percentage. It can only be measured according to participation with God’s generous heart. It’s all about sharing God’s nature.
God had already commanded the widow of Zarephath to feed Elijah. That’s why he could go and ask her for food. Scripture doesn’t indicate that the widow who gave her last mite was giving because God told her to. According to the law and scripture, they were actually supposed to be giving to care for her needs. She was giving out of compulsion, and Jesus called this “devouring widows’ houses.”
God wants us to prosper. There are so many needs in this world that we need to prosper in order to be able to help people! God has supernatural provision for us. As many people are offended by the “prosperity gospel,” scripture has some wonderful passages about God’s blessing prospering us.
We just read some of those promises in 2 Corinthians 9. But remember that the context is taking an offering for the poor and giving freely, not under compulsion. The quote in 2 Corinthians 9 is from Psalm 112. The context is also caring for the poor.
Psalm 112:2-3 “ …the generation of the upright will be blessed. Wealth and riches are in their houses, and their righteousness endures forever.”
When should you give out of need? Do so when you desire to do so and you are meeting another person’s need, under no compulsion. And do so when you are responding in faith to a word from God, with an expectance of supernatural provision.
Have you ever heard a testimony of someone saying “I had a big need and I gave everything I had left. Then I experienced a miracle!” I have no problem believing that many such testimonies are genuine. Is the answer to your need always to do the same? I don’t think so.
In Exodus 17, the Israelites had a need. They were in the desert and they were thirsty, so they started grumbling against God. They forgot the miracles he had done for them before. (That’s what you don’t want to do when you have a need!)
Moses cried out to God because the people were about to stone him, and God said “Strike that rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” Moses hit the rock, water came out, and the people drank. That’s a pretty cool story of supernatural provision.
Well, it wasn’t too long until the Israelites forgot how God provided for them. The story is in Numbers 20. They needed water again. Instead of praying with thanksgiving for God’s deliverance in the past, they turned on Moses. This time God told Moses to speak to the rock and water would come out.
Moses didn’t speak to the rock. He struck it again, this time twice. Water gushed out. But God wasn’t happy about what Moses did.
Numbers 20:12 “But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.’”
Could it be that Moses was attempting to follow a “principle” instead of trusting God and obeying Him? Moses disobeyed God and did “what worked last time.”
Colossians 2:8-10 (NKJV) “Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ. For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; and you are complete in Him…
“Principles” aren’t always bad. Yet I think some of the “financial principles” we’ve heard taught are “the basic principles of this world” and not “according to Christ.” Life in Christ is not according to the basic principles of this world. It supersedes them.
“Basic principles of this world” in context refers especially to the law. Life in Christ works differently, by grace. Giving, by definition, cannot be mandated with a specific percentage, because if it is, it’s not a gift. It’s a tax. And there’s no such thing as a kingdom of Heaven tax.
Reinhard Hirtler is a missionary and a friend I met here in Brazil. I know few people with as many testimonies of supernatural provision as Reinhard. I just listened to several hours of his teaching on kingdom finances. The whole basis for his teaching on radical generosity and supernatural provision is not anything that we do, but is simply the revelation of God’s nature as our Father and provider. The teaching is built on the foundation of seeing God as revealed in Christ, not based on principles.
So many times, I’ve ministered healing and both pagans and Christians start talking about spiritual principles and “the power of faith,” but I have discerned that it was an antichrist spirit distracting them from the revelation of Christ. For me, it was always about the revelation that “This is who Jesus is. He has compassion.” Not the impersonal “power of faith.” Likewise, the tithe doctrine I received obscured the revelation of God through Christ, which is the foundation for true Spirit-led generosity.
We already read the story of Jesus telling his disciples to get a coin from a fish’s mouth. 2nd Kings chapter 4 tells the story of a widow who was about to lose her two sons as slaves to a creditor. The prophet Elisha didn’t ask for an offering or tell her to “sow a seed.” He told her to borrow as many jars as she could, pour oil in them, and sell the oil. The oil multiplied.
We could look at other stories as well, such as the various times God provided for the Israelites. The provision came through a specific word of God for their situation. I think we are missing the point if we teach these stories as mere “principles” rather than encouragement to have faith in God and live out of trust and relationship with Him. It’s the same with testimonies we hear today about supernatural provision.
When we read the different stories in scripture of supernatural provision, we find that the pattern is hearing God’s voice. Many of the “principles” people have tried to draw out of these scriptural stories of provision just don’t hold true consistently. Life in Christ is about participating in God’s nature, the tree of life! It’s not about “Do A and B and C will be the result.” It’s about a relationship with God and hearing his voice.
Speaking of “principles,” let’s consider how we’ve tried to manage our finances by the principle of “sowing and reaping” to the point where we may have missed God’s grace. This teaching has often gone hand-in-hand with tithing, but even many who don’t believe in tithing still think that you can “sow” money by giving in order to reap money. When we just read what the scripture says, it seems strange that we’ve interpreted it that way!
2 Corinthians 9:8-11 “And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. As it is written: ‘They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor; their righteousness endures forever.’
Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.”
What is the harvest that 2 Corinthians says we can expect? It says the “harvest of your righteousness.” How in the world did we ever get the idea that a “harvest of righteousness” is money, which Jesus called “unrighteous mammon?”
Psalm 112, James 1:27, and other cross-references show us that scripture connects righteousness with caring for the poor. We receive Christ’s righteousness as a free gift, becoming “trees of righteousness,” and helping the weak is one of the fruits of righteousness. The harvest is blessing the poor which results in thanksgiving to God. We reap heavenly rewards, treasure in heaven which moth and rust do not destroy.
Some say “We receive a harvest in like kind, so if 2 Corinthians is talking about sowing money, it is also talking about reaping money.” However, that logic simply isn’t scriptural. In defending his right to receive support, Paul previously said “If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you?” He was talking about sowing spiritual seed and reaping material things there. Here, he is talking about sowing money and reaping a spiritual harvest.
Read the passage in 2 Corinthians 9 again. It is clearly talking about a blessing of financial prosperity, but it doesn’t say this material blessing is the harvest as a result of sowing money. Rather, the material blessing is the provision for sowing so that we can reap a spiritual “harvest of righteousness.” The passage is talking about giving because God has already blessed us and we are in communion with him, participating in his generous nature.
T.B. Joshua blessed a poor and disabled man who had lost everything, giving him several bags of rice and a significant sum of money from the church. He then asked for someone to give the man a car, saying that with all the people watching, it shouldn’t be a problem for someone to give a car. Instead of promising a financial harvest to the giver, Joshua said “Give him a car, and see whether you will not receive millions of joy.”
As Benny Hinn talked about how he was “fed up” with give-to-get gimmicks, he said “Let’s be honest. How many do you know that ever got the 100 fold return?” Christians sometimes become disillusioned or frustrated with God after being told he promises them 30, 60, or 100 times their money! But if we just look at what scripture says about reaping a harvest not of money but of righteousness, we’ll realize that it very well is possible to reap 30, 60, and 100-fold in blessing that comes through our giving!
When I consider testimonies of radical givers experiencing supernatural provision, I realize how easily their testimonies could be misinterpreted as “reaping a harvest of money” because they sowed by giving. Rather, God was just giving seed to the sower. Since the individual had entered so much into participation with God’s generous nature, God was giving them seed to express that nature with!
If you still think scripture promises a harvest of money for our giving, I’d encourage you to re-read those passages again and consider the context, because several other scriptures are also used out-of-context to teach “give-to-get.” But for now, I’d like to point out two scripture points that are rarely considered when we discuss sowing and reaping.
Matthew 6:26 “’Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?’”
Jesus is very clearly teaching his disciples to rely on their heavenly Father’s good nature and love for our provision, which supersedes principles like sowing and reaping! This is so contrary to sayings we hear like “If you have a need, sow a seed.” Our confidence should be in God our provider, not in a principle of reaping and sowing. Nevertheless, if you want to sow money to reap money, you can try investing, and if you want an abundant spiritual “harvest of righteousness,” start partnering with God in Spirit-led giving.
The second point is very simple. On the Sabbaths, Sabbath years, and the year of Jubilee, the people neither reaped nor sowed. Jesus is our Sabbath, and he proclaimed the year of Jubilee at his coming. Furthermore, some have noted that a tithe was not payable on either the Sabbatical years or the year of Jubilee, because they neither reaped nor sowed! This fact creates an interesting dilemma for anybody who believes that Jesus is the fulfilment of the Sabbath or the year of Jubilee yet still teaches tithing.
When it becomes about only “following principles” instead of knowing God, we end up giving out of compulsion. In that case, not only are we violating Paul’s New Testament command, but the motivation for “giving” becomes totally self-centered. It’s no longer “don’t look only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” It’s “give so you can get blessed and so God can take care of your needs.” It’s no longer grace and mercy, and it’s no longer gospel.
Giving under compulsion often leads us to give towards things that are straw, hay, and stubble, and will be burned up, just as the widow in the New Testament gave her last to adorn a temple that was about to be destroyed.
So how do we treat the testimonies of people giving radically and experiencing miracles of provision? I think that instead of turning them into “principles” of how to get our needs met, we can take them as encouragement to trust God, obey his voice, and grow in the grace of giving.
If God provided for Jesus with a coin from a fish’s mouth, we can also walk in relationship with the Father so that we hear His voice and experience supernatural provision.
 James 1:27, 1 Timothy 5:3-4
 Luke 16:9 (NKJV)
 Isaiah 61:3
 Matthew 6:19-20
 1 Corinthians 9:11
 Leviticus 25:4-12
 Colossians 2:16-17, Hebrews 3+4
 Luke 4:16-21
 Philippians 2:4
 1 Corinthians 3:10-15