Giving Out of Poverty

41 Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts.42 But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.

43 Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. 44 They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

-Mark 12

It is a common conception in American culture that giving even when you don’t have anything left to give is a virtue. It’s considered almost saintly to give money when you are poor, to commit your time and your energy beyond the point of sanity, to consistently give patience, reassurance, and comfort to others regardless of your own feelings or needs. Women in particular are often told in direct and indirect ways that they need to prioritize others over themselves, and that if they have any energy, time, money, or resources left to give, it should go to someone else (better not be lazy you know, and selfishness is the worst sin in the history of the world).

In some sort of perfect, imagined world, we all are completely selfless and give to others fully and so we all end up fully taken care of. Nobody has to do the hard work of taking care of themselves because someone else will do it! And having no sense of self or identity except that which is subsumed into doing things for other people is the best way to be a good person. Especially because then when you die you can be subsumed into your sky-daddy and cease to exist completely! Hooray!

Ahahaha, unfortunately this is all bullshit, especially if there isn’t some sort of magical afterlife that you can look forward to when the process of excising any sense of self starts to really get you down. Here’s a little secret: if you don’t take care of yourself, no one will. Sure, you may have loved ones who will offer support, but unless you are willing to speak up and ask for what you need, tell people what will actually help you, and take time for yourself, no one else is going to force you to. And even if others do their best to take care of you, it will never be the same as the person who has internal access to your needs and wants spending time to take care of them.

There are many assumptions underlying this supposed virtue that have a lot to do with religion. Mostly they have to do with the idea that you as an individual are not important except insofar as you reflect God, as well as the idea that the good things in your life are not because you earned or deserved them, but because God gave them to you and you should simply be grateful for whatever joy comes your way. It also relies on the idea that you need to suffer now in order to show that you are humble and deserving of heaven.

But in reality, this attitude sets you up to be in lots of really abusive situations, models really craptastical behavior for everyone around you, and leaves you run down with no resources left to actually do the kind and giving things you want to do for others. If you spend your whole life giving and giving, paying no attention to your own needs, eventually you get tired. When you are tired and you keep trying to give, you start to get resentful and bitter, no matter how hard you try not to. Even if you don’t, eventually you’ll run out of energy and simply fall apart. You’ll get sloppy and when you try to help others you’ll likely just make things worse. Oddly enough, you aren’t at your very best when you’re tired and drained.

But beyond that, you deserve your own care. If we come from the premise that this is the only life there is and that minimizing harm is an ethical priority, then your own harm counts as well. Unless we have some sort of premise that we are supposed to be imminently humble, that we our lives are unimportant, or that we’ll get our joy and our reward somewhere else because this life isn’t important, it does not make sense to always prioritize others and to continue to try to help even when we are harming ourselves. When you give from what you need, you don’t really help anyone. You hurt yourself and you ruin your ability to help others in the future. Giving when you have nothing to give, or giving until you hurt yourself is not virtuous, it does not demonstrate your care and compassion for others, and it is not necessary in order to be kind. Compassion and kindness are about doing the best you can with what you have.

Now none of this is to say that we should be selfish and never sacrifice for the sake of others, but simply that we should pay attention to the balance of things. Skepticism can be very important to honing our morals, and I think it suggests we should get rid of the idea that we need to “give out of our poverty”. Give from what you have available to give.


Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at

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  1. “put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.”

    Worth only a few cents? What translation would say such a thing? It almost sounds like it came from a “Jesus founded America and wrote the constitution” sect.

    Not to be off-topic, but yeesh.

    1. The version quoted here is from the New International Version, one of the most populat translations. Most translations of Mark 12:42 give some kind of contemporary monetary value to the two small coins. Young’s Literal Translation gives it as “and having come, a poor widow did put in two mites, which are a farthing” and the use of “farthing” is also there in the King James Version.

  2. Well…
    I’m flashing back to numerous studies I’ve read about, though, where wealth is inversely tied to generosity. Where people who don’t have very much are more likely to stop and help someone who clearly has nothing, or give a hand to someone who looks as if they need it, while the rich folks walk on by.
    For those of us of a liberal persuasion, that kind of story makes us feel as if our work is justified — as if this proves that the upper-class narrative of lazy welfare bums is false and the rich, by and large, really are the jerks we caricature them to be. Shouldn’t we feel pleased about those studies, then?

  3. I don’t think the real issue is poor people being generous. It is unlikely they would stop being poor if they stopped being generous, but they probably benefit from the good feelings and social ties that come from the generosity.

    The real problem is the powerful religious leaders and political figures who convince the needy that they should be MORE generous so government programs can be slashed. The powerful are not generous to the programs that needy people need. They donate to the opera but look away from the homeless.

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