The Rea­son for Giv­ing

The Freeman - - OPINION -

In to­day’s read­ings we meet two pi­ous Jewish wid­ows. Both ter­ri­bly poor, yet each gives all she has to godly cause. One gives from her last hand­ful of meal, her last drops of oil, to a prophet. The other puts her last two cop­per coins in the tem­ple col­lec­tion box.

One prof­its from a mir­a­cle. The other is praised by the Lord.

Isn’t that so touch­ing? The mo­ral? One can say, “Give gen­er­ously to your priest or bishop, keep them in style, load the col­lec­tion bas­kets with the blue and yel­low bills, and you can ex­pect to win the lotto or make a killing in your busi­ness, or at least a pat on the back from Pope Fran­cis, re­ceive the honor of be­ing a Knight or Dame of some Holy Or­ders.”

This is the story on the sur­face. Be­neath the sur­face all sorts of gems and chal­lenges can be dis­cov­ered. As so of­ten in the read­ings, a ba­sic Chris­tian re­al­ity is at stake.

Let us ex­plore by 1) first re­flect on the wid­ows, then 2) look at Je­sus, and 3) re­late the mes­sage to us – you and me.

First, the wid­ows. You can­not sim­ply read the seven verses from Mark in iso­la­tion. They are part of a larger drama. Around this short pas­sage in Mark, you find some star­tling con­trast: on the one side im­pres­sive ap­pear­ances with lit­tle sub­stance; on the other, naked sim­plic­ity with hid­den depths.

There is the fig tree full of leaves, at­trac­tive to look at from a dis­tance; but when Je­sus “went to see if he could find any­thing on it… he found noth­ing but leaves.” And he cursed it.

Then there is the Tem­ple, strik­ing the dis­ci­ples with won­der: “Look, Teacher, what won­der­ful stones and what won­der­ful build­ings!”

And Je­sus’ re­ply: “Do you see th­ese great build­ings? There will not be left here one stone upon an­other that will not be thrown down.”

And in our pas­sage to­day, note the con­trast. On the one hand, the scribes in their sig­na­ture out­fits, with their re­served seats in tem­ple, and on the pres­i­den­tial ta­bles at big din­ners, pray­ing with dra­matic ges­tures for peo­ple to no­tice.

It’s all a fake, Je­sus says – a pre­tense, a pal­abas – a show! Th­ese are the same peo­ple who “eat up wid­ows’ houses.”

How dif­fer­ent from the poor widow on the other hand – no pomp or pa­rade, no show or dis­play, just a small gift to the Lord. No big deal.

Sur­face shows against in­ner sub­stance.

But there is more: the gift it­self. “Many rich peo­ple put in large sums.” The “poor widow… put in two cop­per coins.” She put in the small­est Greek coins in cir­cu­la­tion. You need 128 such coins to make up the daily wage of a la­borer.

Still Je­sus can tell his dis­ci­ples: “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all the rest.” Why? Be­cause they were toss­ing into the trea­sury “out of their abun­dance, but she out of her poverty has put in ev­ery­thing she had, her whole liv­ing.”

Re­mem­ber, Je­sus is not cas­ti­gat­ing the wealthy parish­ioners; he is not even ac­cus­ing them of out­ward show.

He is prais­ing the widow. And his praise tells us some­thing rich about hu­man liv­ing, about the risk in giv­ing. The widow’s gift was greater than all be­cause in giv­ing the coins she gave up her se­cu­rity; she “put in her whole liv­ing.”

The oth­ers gave, and it was good; but they leave the tem­ple with­out anx­i­ety, with­out worry. They had given a good deal, but there was more where that came from. For the widow, noth­ing left but to cast all her cares to the Lord.

Like­wise, for the widow in 1 Kings. A hand­ful of flour and a spot of oil – enough to bake a cake for her­self and her son be­fore they lie down to die. And a stranger says: “First make me a lit­tle cake…!”

Not that she was giv­ing up her se­cu­rity; she had none, even if Eli­jah had not dropped in on her. But to give the last cake of your life to a stranger be­cause he says, “Don’t be afraid”? What would you have an­swered? “Man, get lost, and don’t come back!”

Now, let’s look at Je­sus. Je­sus en­ters into Mark’s story of the widow not as a com­men­ta­tor or judge. Je­sus was on his way to Jerusalem to meet his pas­sion and death.

The let­ter to the He­brews tells us: “Christ came ‘once for all… to put away sin by the sac­ri­fice of him­self.’ ”

What made the widow’s gift supremely hu­man was that she gave ev­ery­thing she had: her last two coins. What made it so re­li­gious was that it re­sem­bled what Je­sus him­self would of­fer on the cross: him­self.

In Je­sus’ of­fer­ing there was a ter­ri­ble risk. It was a bloody mo­ment on the cross when Je­sus gives up lit­er­ally ev­ery­thing to the Fa­ther for us: when a naked Je­sus with no se­cu­rity against death prays to the Fa­ther, “My God, my God, why have you for­saken me?”

But re­call that Psalm 22, which Je­sus was pray­ing was ul­ti­mately a prayer of trust, not in man or woman, but in God. Like the widow, Je­sus gave all he had. More ob­vi­ously than the widow, Je­sus gave all he was. Noth­ing left to give, he gave him­self: “This is my body, which is given for you.”

Out of this poverty, he put in the trea­sury of the Fa­ther ev­ery­thing he had, His whole liv­ing, his whole dy­ing. No se­cu­rity… to­tal risk… trust in God alone. The re­sult? Re­demp­tion. You and I, the whole of hu­man­ity, have our sins taken away. All of us can bend the knee be­fore God and say with con­fi­dence, “Our Fa­ther…”

But how do you and I fit into this liturgy of two wid­ows? Above all, the wid­ows sym­bol­ize the Christ-life, where the key words are “gift” and “risk.” If Je­sus is the per­fect hu­man, the pro­to­type of what a Chris­tian should be, then our lives are Chris­tian to the ex­tent that they are shaped to his risk-filled self-giv­ing.

We are more ac­cus­tomed to giv­ing out our sur­plus – a good thing, in­deed, and I’m not crit­i­ciz­ing it. With­out it, life would be a jun­gle, sur­vival of the fittest, “dog eat dog” strug­gle. Good in­deed, this giv­ing out of our sur­plus, but it raises a prob­lem for Chris­tians.

Could not our Lord at once ap­plaud this and still ask: “Do not the pa­gans do as much? Where then is our Chris­tian-sense? Only with a dif­fer­ent mo­ti­va­tion, only be­cause we give in the name of Christ?

The story of the widow, and even more, the deed of Christ, sug­gests strongly that the new thing he brought into the world is summed up in his phrase, “out of her poverty.” This means we are most Chris­tian, most Christ­like, when our giv­ing af­fects our ex­is­tence, when it threat­ens our se­cu­rity, when it is ul­ti­mately our­selves we are giv­ing away. How could it be our­selves?

Like it or not, it is the cru­ci­fied Christ, who is the supreme pat­tern, the model for Chris­tian liv­ing. And the cru­ci­fied Christ gives… Him­self. But as to the “how” or “where” or “when” this touches any­one of you, I dare not sug­gest.

Christ speaks to you where you’re at. You and He know who you are, where your gifts lie, what keeps you from risk­ing, why you keep giv­ing out your sur­plus.

Christ alone can tell you at what point, and in what way, you have to sur­ren­der what lends you se­cu­rity; what keeps you from go­ing out to your broth­ers and sis­ters with trust only in the power of a lov­ing God.

Christ alone… that’s the prob­lem. How dearly do I love him? Isn’t it sur­pris­ing how lit­tle he moves most of us, how rarely he ex­cites us? Why doesn’t Je­sus turn more of us on? Per­haps he will, if we take him more se­ri­ously.

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