Christ reserved some of His harshest words for those who used religion as a pretense for taking advantage of needy widows and others in desperate situations (Mark 12:38–40). At the same time, some of His greatest commendations went to those widows who willingly and cheerfully gave what they had to the work of God. We read such words in today's passage.
During the first century, the temple in Jerusalem and the priesthood were funded by the tithes and gifts of the people, in keeping with the Lord's instruction in Deuteronomy 12:1–7 for the Jews to bring their offerings to the one appointed sanctuary for worship. In Jesus' day, monetary gifts were deposited in an offering box located in the court of the women, where both men and women could gather. Given what Mark 12:41–42 tells us, contributing monies to this box was in some ways a public act. If people were paying attention, they could see who was giving money when someone placed money in the box. It was evident when wealthy people gave large sums of money, and it was also clear when poor individuals gave meager amounts to the temple. Probably the sound of the coins' falling into the box was a giveaway as to the amount of money contributed.
In terms of the number of coins, it was clear that the wealthy gave more in total to the temple and to the worship of the Lord than the poor. Yet Jesus indicates that when God considers how much people give to His kingdom, He considers not the monetary sum but the intent of the heart and the sacrifice made. The widow in today's passage is praised because though her gift was small in amount (one-thirty-second of a day's wage), it represented a true sacrifice on her part. The wealthy contributors, at least on that day, were giving out of their abundance—they gave up nothing in order to contribute their sums; their donations did not really cost them anything from a material goods standpoint. They did not truly surrender anything in order to worship God. The widow, on the other hand, gave up all she had because of her great dedication to the Lord.
John Calvin comments on today's passage that "whatever men offer to God ought to be estimated not by its apparent value, but only by the feeling of the heart." The Lord is less concerned about the total we give to His kingdom (though one-tenth is a good starting point) and more about the spirit in which we give it. He is glorified by any gift we give when our hearts are in the right place.
In his commentary Mark, Dr. R.C. Sproul writes, "God is not so much concerned with what we give as how we give." Above all, the Lord is looking at our hearts, and He esteems those who have hearts that are willing to make sacrifices for His kingdom. Are you giving to the work of God in a way that pleases Him?