The widow’s story

Cebu Daily News - - OPINION - By Simeon Dum­dum Jr.

In the Brook­lyn Mu­seum hangs a water­color paint­ing by James Joseph Jac­ques Tis­sot, a French artist who lived towards the end of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury. It de­picts a scene that Mark writes about in his Gospel, in which Je­sus was ob­serv­ing the peo­ple putting in their money, many of them in large sums, into the tem­ple trea­sury.

He no­ticed a poor widow ap­proach and drop into the trea­sury two small coins — equiv­a­lent in value to the least of the Ro­man coins. Je­sus called his dis­ci­ples and told them, point­ing to the widow, “Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other con­trib­u­tors to the trea­sury. For they have all con­trib­uted from their sur­plus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has con­trib­uted all she had, her whole liveli­hood.”

Tis­sot’s paint­ing shows a shab­bily dressed woman hold­ing a child stand­ing in front of the col­lec­tion box. She seems to have just put in her small coins, all that she had. Her face, drawn and hag­gard, is the face of poverty. Some­what in front of her, to the left, watch two men, like­wise of hum­ble cir­cum­stances. Be­hind her, emerg­ing from a door and mov­ing towards the trea­sury box, are three well-dressed gen­tle­men.

At the back, a white-clad Je­sus sits, talk­ing to three of his dis­ci­ples, mo­tion­ing towards the woman.

The story is of­ten used to il­lus­trate the na­ture of giv­ing, the big- heart­ed­ness of which finds mea­sure, not so much in the value of the thing given as in its value to the giver. To the wealthy the big amounts that they put in, drawn from their sur­plus, have only a fis­cal, and a pro­por­tion­ally neg­li­gi­ble worth, while the widow’s two small coins, ex­tracted from her need, have an ex­is­ten­tial, and a deeply spir­i­tual value. Sac­ri­fic­ing one’s life for oth­ers would not mean much if one had sev­eral lives to spare.

Je­sus had ear­lier con­demned the scribes for, in his words, de­vour­ing the houses of wid­ows. Hence, while prais­ing the gen­eros­ity of the poor woman who de­posited her last coins into the trea­sury, Je­sus in fact at­tacked the Jewish au­thor­i­ties for abet­ting do­na­tions from even so des­ti­tute a class as wid­ows. Je­sus seemed to say, “Look at that poor woman, how gen­er­ous she is, and how greedy are those who re­quire peo­ple like her, who have next to noth­ing, to con­trib­ute even the lit­tle that they have.”

Tis­sot stuck to a re­al­is­tic style de­spite be­ing sur­rounded by artist friends from the Im­pres­sion­ist School, and, es­pe­cially after the death of his lover and muse, found so­lace in his Catholic faith and turned away from de­pict­ing fash­ion­able women in fa­vor of bi­b­li­cal scenes. In the paint­ing of the widow, I sense the artist's faith which al­lows him to draw from this Gospel event its gen­uinely hu­man and spir­i­tual di­men­sions.

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