THE WIDOW’S MITE
1Kings 17:10-16; Heb 9:24-28; Mk 12:38-44
The Scripture readings today (Mark 12:38-44; 1 Kings 17:10-16) put before us two women and the scribes for our reflection. We see that the women and the scribes have very different motivations. Both women are widows and they make acts of extraordinary generosity. The widow in Zarephath feeds Elijah. She was willing to share her last bit of food during a famine even with a stranger. She is greatly rewarded as the jar of meal does not empty nor the jug of oil go dry. The widow in the Gospel performs one act of generosity in the temple. Unlike the widow of the first reading, we do not hear the rest of the story about the widow in the Gospel. She gives her last two coins but we can imagine that she was blessed by God. At the very least she is praised by Jesus, while just before this Jesus had denounced the scribes for their emphasis on externals when they were interiorly corrupt even to the point of taking widows’ property. There is background to Jesus’ teaching today.
- THE ACT OF GIVING TO GOD
The adherents of every religion are required to provide material support for the programmes and projects of their religion. In the Catholic Church, that is one of the “Precepts of the Church” (“Help Bishop and Father!”). It is also generally understood that the support that people give to their religion should be in proportion to the ability of each person. Those who are better endowed materially are expected to give more than those who are less endowed. That must have been the principle behind the requirement to pay tithes in the Jewish religion. Payment of tithe was taken so seriously in Judaism that failure to pay it was seen as an act of robbing God. Whereas anyone who paid his/her tithe could expect to be blessed bountifully by God (Malachi 3:8-11).
It would seem from today’s Gospel passage that the tithe was actually the minimum that Jews were required to give in support of their religion. Those who wanted to be really generous in giving to God did far more than that. For instance, what the widow put into the temple treasury was not just a tithe (one tenth) of her earning (if she had any), but, in the words of Jesus, “everything she possessed, all she had to live on”.
- CONTRIBUTING TO THE TEMPLE TREASURY
The temple was structured in such a way that giving was a fairly public act. There were thirteen collection boxes lined up in the courtyard, each shaped like a trumpet at the top that led to the box below where all the money was collected. These boxes were set up for people to give voluntarily to various temple ministries. The offerings placed in these boxes were free-will offerings given by the people to God.
Because of the way things were set up, people generally knew who gave large amounts and who gave small amounts. There was no paper money at that time, so offerings consisted only of coins. The coins were made of different metals and were different sizes depending on how much they were worth. Some were made of gold, some of silver, and some of copper. People paid attention when a large gift was put into the collection boxes. The loud clanging of lots of heavy coins falling into the trumpet was unmistakable. The attentive listener could even tell whether the coins that were being dropped into the trumpet were light copper coins or heavy gold ones, since each made a different sound.
Jesus was sitting across from this area and saw what was going on. St. Mark’s gospel tells us that many rich people were dropping in large amounts. Everyone was surely paying attention to these people, yet as Jesus watched, a woman caught his attention. In the midst of all these large, loud gifts going into the treasury, she dropped in a seemingly insignificant amount. But Jesus noticed her. We are told that this woman was a widow, which meant that she had no means of supporting herself (because women could not work or own property according to Jewish law), so the only money she had was what others had given her. St. Mark specifies that she put in two small coins. But Jesus holds her meagre offering in very high esteem. There are several lessons to be learnt from this.
- THE TRUE DISCIPLE OF JESUS
The episode of the Widow in the gospel contrasts clearly with the way of the scribes and those who ruled the Jewish society. A poor widow proves that her heart is completely detached from the goods of this world. She gives all that she has. Jesus presents her as a model to his disciples, not only because of her humility, but because of more! Four weeks ago, we reflected on the episode of the rich man who had kept all the commandments but had not followed Christ because he did not have the courage to give up his riches. This poor widow “has given all she possessed”. She has fulfilled an indispensable condition to become a disciple. The true disciple is not the rich person who can afford to give generously from his/her spare money. The real Christian is one who, RICH or POOR, shares generously with the brothers and sisters “all” that he/she possesses.
Even the poor person is called to put his/her good in common. Sure, every person has a duty to strive to provide adequately for his/her family; but he/she should still realize that he/she is responsible for the welfare of the others. Many are the excuses that a selfish heart can find to escape helping one’s brothers and sisters! Let us not forget that no one is too poor to the extent of having nothing to offer.
- THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN QUANTITY AND QUALITY
Clearly, Jesus’ assessment of the widow’s offering was not about how much money she put in, but rather how much money she kept for herself. In giving to God (or to anyone else for that matter), there is QUANTITY and there is QUALITY. Quality is to be preferred to quantity, at least as far as Jesus is concerned. The quality in giving is measured by what it costs the person of the giver to make that offer. In fact, it depends on how much of the person of the giver is in the gift. If I give, but there is little or nothing of myself in what I give, my giving has very little value or it may have none at all. But if, when I give, and there is something of myself in what I give, then that is when my giving has value. The more of myself I put into my giving, the greater the value of my giving.
One anonymous writer lists four different types of giving:
- The first is called grudge giving. I hate to part with this One Thousand Francs note, but I will.
- The second is shame giving. I must match whatever the Jones family is giving.
- The third is calculated giving. We part with our money with what, a “lively sense of favours to come.” Gambling and raffle tickets and refundable tax rebates fit in very nicely in this category.
- The final category is thanksgiving. I part with my funds precisely because God has been so wonderfully generous to me. The widow of today’s Gospel fits comfortably into this area.
If what I give to God is the surplus of my possessions, that is, what I really do not need, what I can do without, or, to use the expression of Jesus, “money that I have over”, then there is little or nothing of me in such a gift. To that extent, my gift is of little value or it may even be completely valueless in the sight of God. But if what I give to God is taken out of what I need myself, and my giving it entails sacrifice, denying myself something that I would really love to have for myself, or like the widow’s mite, it is “all I possess, all I have to live on”, then that is when I give myself along with my gift. To that extent, my gift is of great value in the sight of God. It may not amount to a great deal in terms of quantity, not a lot of money. But its quality is of the highest order.
That is what can be said of the giving of Abel, as contrasted with that of his brother, Cain (cf. Gen 4). The same can be said of the sacrifice that Abraham was prepared to make of his son, Isaac, at God’s command (cf. Gen 22). That is also the case with the widow in today’s First Reading, who did not hesitate to share her last ration of meal and oil with the prophet Elijah. Indeed, that is how quality must be preferred to quantity in every act of giving, especially giving to God and the things of God.
- TRUE GREATNESS
Jesus tells us that even little people can do something great. He observes that the widow places two small coins in the temple treasury. With a solemn, “Amen,” he says, “this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors…” Her contribution may have looked small in quantity, but she gave from her poverty, “all she had, her whole livelihood.”
We live in a time when people are addicted to “BIGNESS”. People go for big things, big cars, big houses, big positions, big names, big men, big women etc. No one seems to notice SMALL THINGS. In this concern with bigness, we lose sight of true greatness, using every means available – good or bad – in order to attain this “bigness”. For instance, prizes and certificates are given, not for “trying”, but for “results”. It is the result that counts. According to this line of thinking, the best team is always the one that wins. Best is defined by results, by which side tops the points table, by which company returns a profit or a loss. A “morally good student”, who makes an honest effort to study, but fails the G.C.E. examinations or some other public examination is never recruited for any job, for lack of RESULTS. With this mentality, parents mourn their children before they are dead, simply because they cannot pass examinations.
But Jesus does not judge according to appearance or results. He has a different yardstick. He says: “No, it is not the result that counts but the spirit shown”. It is not what has been attained, but the price that has been paid that matters. There is a saying that goes: “You don’t have to be the BIGGEST in order to be the BEST. You just have to try harder.” Greatness is a matter not of size but of quality, and it is within the reach of each and every one of us. Greatness lies in the faithful performance of whatever duties life places upon us. There is greatness in patient endurance. There is greatness in unyielding loyalty to a goal, in resistance to the temptation to betray the best that we know. There is greatness and nobleness in speaking up for the truth when it is assailed. There is greatness in steadfast adherence to vows given and to the promises made.
To be great, and to maintain that greatness, the widow of today’s gospel teaches us to be humble and generous in whatever we do. What we have to offer may look very small and not worth much, but if we put all that we have at the Lord’s disposal, no matter how insignificant it may seem, God can do with it and with us something that is beyond our reckoning. What God is interested in is our motives. It is what drives our actions that interests him, not so much what we actually end up achieving. God does not ask us to do extraordinary things. He asks us to do ordinary things extraordinarily well. Let no one believe that greatness can pass him/her by. If you wish it very much, it can be yours, through a joyful, diligent and honest self-application to whatever tasks your state of life places before you. Great people are industrious. Industrious people finish jobs; they do not start something with a glorious fanfare, which peters out after the novelty has worn off. They have their sights clearly set on what has to be achieved, and slowly but surely, little by little, they complete it.
- TAKING A STEP AT A TIME WITH GOD
The two widows in today’s First Reading and Gospel also reminded us that God guides us a step at a time. As you seek God’s will for your life God will not show you the entire plan. He will show you the next step. We must take that next step before we will see the step that follows. The widows gave “their all” even when they were not sure of what was to come next. Yet, they trusted that God would take care of their needs. We must always do what we know God wants us to do right now. Until one takes that first step with God, there will not be any others. We must learn to trust in God’s providence.
Mark cleverly situates this famous story of the Widow’s mite during the last week in the life of Jesus (towards the end of Mark’s gospel). In a subtle manner, he is reminding us that in a few days Jesus will give his life for us on Calvary. What do we give him in return? Thus the Gospel reminds us that we should give, in the words of one spiritual writer, not only what we HAVE but also what we ARE. This calls to mind an epitaph on an English gravestone. “What I kept I LOST. What I spent I HAD. What I gave I HAVE.” Similarly, Rousseau’s admonishes: “When a man dies, he carries in his hands only that which he has given away.”
Let us pray therefore: “Lord Jesus, all that I have is yours. Take my life, my possessions, my time and all that I have, and use them as you desire for your glory.” Amen.