Jesus and the disciples are sitting outside the temple in Jerusalem, and he points to a widow putting two copper coins into the temple treasury leaving her nothing to buy food. He compares her gift to what the wealthy contribute, and generations of preachers have interpreted his next sentence as praise for her willingness to give.
But just before this he warned his disciples to be wary of the scribes who make a show in public and “devour widow’s houses” covering their actions with long prayers. Right after he gives the warning, he sees an example of this kind of theft: by insisting that even the widow pay the tax, the religious leaders have effectively condemned her to starvation. The next thing he says is that the whole temple and its infrastructure will be taken down in judgement. (Ched Myers gives a convincing explanation of this passage in his book Binding the Strong Man)
We need to hear this story in context and realize that Jesus was angry at the way the social structure rewarded the wealthy and imposed hardship on those who already suffered. Rather than praising the sacrificial giving of the poor, he demanded sacrifice from the powerful and the wealthy.
Listen to the story again:
When Jesus came to Jerusalem, the leadership of the nation sent a series of people to him to test him. They hoped to trap him into saying something that would discredit him or allow them to arrest him. By speaking truth openly, he showed the hollowness of their position.
Then to his disciples he said, “You have to watch out for the leaders of our land. They make a show of religion, claim the best places in public and devour widow’s houses.”
He watched the wealthy make a big show of contributing to the temple, then pointed to a widow who put in two copper coins, one penny. “That’s all she had to feed herself! She has nothing more, but still the rich leaders insist she pay the tax. She paid for their temple with her life.”
He got up and left the place in disgust, but his disciples still did not understand. They pointed at the beautiful stones and structures praising it. “You still don’t get it,” he said. “God has judged this injustice. The whole structure is coming down.”
And then he continued on his path to build a new community of peace founded on justice. When he was gone and the disciples started to lead the people in his way, looking after widows was key to their work.