Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time: The Widow’s Mite
To the readers of Vox Nova: I have not been posting much lately, as you may have noticed. One excuse is that I have been busy with my new job, which is proving to be much more time consuming that I had thought it would be. And I ask your prayers: being a chairman is hard work, but I am really enjoying this opportunity.
But, at the same time, I have to admit that I have been having a hard time putting pen to paper, as it were. I have ideas, and I promised one of our readers that I would respond on issues related to race, George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. But when I go to write, the few ideas I have seem like shards that I cannot assemble.
Reading this, you might be afraid that I am throwing in the towel and moving on, as so many of our great contributors have done over the past couple of years. But something happened in the past week that has given me the hope (and perhaps the courage) to try again. My wife and I joined a small discussion group at Church that has been reading and praying over Pope Francis’ first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. This past week we read Chapter 3, where the Pope aims much of his writing to priests and deacons as he talks about the importance of good preaching for spreading the Good News that is Jesus Christ. Our discussion turned, predictably, to the generally poor status of preaching in the Catholic Church. This is exacerbated here in the South, as we have many adult converts (including two in the reading group) and they have experienced the high quality preaching that is the hallmark of baptist and evangelical churches in the region. And then last night, at the vigil mass, I endured one more uninspiring, forgettable homily. (Literally: I cannot, for the life of me, remember anything he said.) In exasperation, I said to myself, “I can do better than that!” Today, while praying with my fraternity on the theme of “God centered poverty”, the same thought crossed my mind. And it seems that God responded with a rather tart, “Put up or shut up!”
Did God really speak to me in that moment, or was that my own vanity and pride issuing the challenge? I do not know. But the following is the result, and it arose nearly spontaneously as I reflected on the readings for this Sunday. If this works, I shall try to write on again next week, and the week after, until I burn out, get distracted, or discover something about myself.
Your thoughts and criticisms on both subject and form (as a sermon) are welcome. I have not responded much to the comments I have gotten on recent posts, but I have read them, and I do take them to heart, particularly when our regular readers speak from the heart.
In today’s Gospel we hear the familiar story of the widow whose small contribution to the Temple treasury (two small coins, her “mites” in the language of the King James Bible) was noted and praised by Jesus. We know why Jesus praised her gift, but have you asked yourself why she made this gift to the Temple? She was poor in a time when the only social safety net was adult sons or the uncertain generosity of better-off neighbors. And as she waited to make her offering, she would have seen that those same neighbors were making much larger offerings, and would probably have known that her small gift would be met with, at best, perfunctory thanks from the Temple officials overseeing the collection.
Why then did she give away “all she had to live on”? She was not simply keeping up appearances or obeying some rule, “the Law” or custom of the time. She was too marginal to be noticed by those who treated their gifts as tokens in the social game, and probably too poor to be criticized by even the most legalistic scribe. Rather, she did this because she believed that this is what God wanted. God had asked this of her, and she had the faith to respond to His request.
Preposterous! you might say: why would the God who “sustains the widow” (as today’s psalm puts it) demand back the little bit of sustenance he had sent her way? But in the first reading we see clearly that God does make such requests. Elijah went to Zarephath and imposed on this widow precisely because God told him to do so. Speaking with God’s authority, he demanded that this widow feed him the last food she had for herself and her son. She had no idea of the miracle that was about to occur. She was tired, hungry, and without hope. Drought and famine had reduced her and her only son (at least, I presume he was such) to dire straits: they would eat their last morsel and then die, two more victims of famine to be buried and forgotten.
She could very well have asked Elijah why he did not demand her better off neighbors, those with the wealth to buy food in a time of famine, to feed him. But through the voice of the prophet, she heard God asking her to feed the prophet instead of her son. The same God who asked her forefather Abraham to give to Him the life of his only son, Isaac. Abraham responded in faith, and she could do no less.
In the same way, the widow who threw two small coins in the Temple collection heard and responded to the demand of God for all she had. She was, perhaps, strengthened in faith because she knew that long ago God, through Elijah, had fed the widow of Zarephath and her son. She had faith that God would “give food to the hungry” and “sustain the widow”—faith that was stronger than her own bitter experience, which probably told her that the poor and marginalized often went hungry while their “betters” ate their fill. And in faith she said yes to God.
So if our God makes such demands of a poor widow, what does he ask of us? Most of us are, by almost any measure, substantially better off than her. Do we hear God calling to us, asking us to give without reserve? Do we hear the voice of Jesus saying to the rich young man: “If you would be perfect, go, sell all that you have and give it to the poor, and then come follow me!” (Cf. Luke 18:22.) There is no single correct response to this call. Some, like the poor widow, give all that they have. The tax collector Zacchaeus, responded by giving away half his fortune—enough for Jesus to declare that salvation had come to his house. The only wrong answer is to turn and walk away, sad, because our possessions matter more than God’s call.
Today, like every day, God is calling us, asking us, begging us to give of ourselves, of our substance and not our surplus. Today, as He does every Sunday, God gives us the Body and Blood of his only Son, showing that He himself has not held back anything in his love for us. And he wants us to respond in kind. Most of us are not ready to give it all away. And that is okay. There are many ways to respond, and all of them are pleasing to God. Today and in the week ahead, resolve to give a little more of yourself: in the collection basket, to Catholic Charities, to the neighbor who’s lost his job and can’t find a new one, to the homeless addict who sleeps behind your office building, to the refugees from Syria we hear about in the news. Take the first step in faith, and then take another. God will be there for you as you do. For Jesus promised: “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Luke 6:38).