I know of a pastor who explained to his people that the parish would not be responding to an urgent request for money that had been brought to their attention because, as he put it, “If we give to others right now, we’ll sooner or later be in need ourselves. And what sense does that make?”
I heard Bishop Fulton Sheen back in the 50s quite literally begging on behalf of the poorest of the poor in a foreign country that he had just visited. Without criticizing or judging the congregation he was speaking to, he acknowledged that the economic situation of some of them could well lead them to believe that that was no time to be giving to others, no matter their desperate need. And then he made a point that has stuck with me to this very day: he said that there is no better time to give than when we ourselves are feeling financially stressed — when we are spending a considerable amount of our capital on our families, for example, on sickness or education or whatever. When we are giving out of our relative poverty, he stressed, is when we are doing what Jesus asks of us.
The poor widow in today’s account from Jesus’ life could be criticized for being foolish and irresponsible by contributing to the temple the few cents she had, which she needed to buy food for her table. But, instead, Jesus praises her, observing that the wealthy donated large sums of money out of their enormous wealth – “off the top,” we would say — but she gave more than any of them: she gave all she had.
She was depriving herself of the little she had for the good of others worse off than herself. She was taking a chance on her own survival and well being. She was expressing in a concrete, material manner her firm conviction that God would care for her as she was caring for others.
I have friends and members of my good family who share the bounty of their financial situations with others and never seek recognition or honor or thanks or praise. I conclude from that that they are doing a lot more that no one knows about. The Jesus of 2000 years ago would have loved them. The largesse of a Bill Gates or a Warren Buffet deserves our attention and our profound respect, but we mustn’t say, “Well, if I had their money, I’d do the same and maybe even more.” We don’t know that, and history as well as modern times tells us that we human beings can be extremely selfish and uncaring about the terrible suffering of others, especially when we have abundance ourselves. If instead the universal inclination were to care and to share, there would be no such thing as human poverty. But it isn’t.
The widow in the first reading we heard today had such respect for a messenger of God that she gave him the food that she and her son needed for survival. In return for her faith and trust, she was given a jar of oil that would never run dry and a jar of flour that would never go empty. Of course, these magical elements in an ancient story are symbolic: they stand for the unfailing care of God that every believer must trust in. Their purpose is to encourage us with the assurance that there is a resourcefulness that goes infinitely beyond our own. We call it providence: the mercy, concern, compassion of our creator, always alert and active and responsive in our lives. To give generously – occasionally even extravagantly or wildly — is to let go of something we own and share it with someone in need – only to have it returned to us in some other form and many times over besides!
We’ve been called to live by faith.