The Reason for Giving
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.