In today’s readings we have the story of two widows. The widow of Zarephath did not hesitate to share the little she had meant for her own survival and that of her son with this total stranger. At first Elijah just asked her for some water. Then he wanted some bread. But she had nothing but a handful of flour and a few drops of oil to prepare a final meal for herself and her son. Then they would wait for death. How desperate can one be? “Do not fear,” the prophet said. “Do as you were planning, but give me some as well. You will not run out.” The three of them were able to eat for a year: the prophet, the woman, the child. The flour did not vanish. The oil did not go dry.
In the gospel we have a totally different situation. Jesus had just finished exposing the phoniness of the Scribes. They were the intelligent people of the time. They knew how to read and write and the peasantry depended on them a lot, especially in legal matters. They were puffed up by their own importance and demanded recognition. Some exploited the ignorance of widows in legal affairs and as Jesus said ‘they devour widow’s houses.’ He had little time for them.
Every time I hear this gospel of the widow’s mite I am reminded of the novel Angela’s Ashes, the story of a family of an absentee husband and father struggling to survive in the slums of Limerick. No matter how little they had to eat, if a neighbour was in need they would always put more water in soup, they found some way to help a person worse off than themselves.
Recent studies in the United States reveal the same phenomenon: relative to their resources, lower income people are the most generous when it comes to helping neighbours in need. I’m sure that’s what is happening on Staten Island and along the Jersey Shore these difficult days and weeks. Sure there will be con artists and some people will take advantage of the generosity of good people but that will not dampen the willingness of good people to come to the help of neighbours and strangers in need.
Every now and then we are angered when we discover that the money we gave to support a cause such as cancer research or heart disease or the money we sent to feed starving children or house orphans ended up being spent on promoting the cause not on the research promised. We feel we’ve been duped. There are many widows and widowers who live lonely lives and the only mail they may receive might be from TV evangelists or pushers of causes these good people are convinced are worthy of support. So, out of their limited resources they send some money maybe so they will be kept on the mailing list and not be forgotten.
Our first reading and the gospel tell of the trust and the generosity of the poor, of those who have little. But notice Jesus didn’t praise the widow in the temple, rather he laments her behavior. She has been taught “sacrificial giving” by her religious leaders and that her giving was a form of piety. These authorities promised to redistribute Temple collections to the needy. In actuality, they spent the funds not on the poor but on making the temple more conspicuous. Her misguided generosity made her own life situation desperate; she had nothing left to live on.
In the early years of the church the Christian community in Jerusalem was in dire straits. The Apostle Paul went to the Christians communities in Asia Minor taking up a collection for the support of the Christians in Jerusalem but this was the advice he gave them ‘he who sows sparingly will reap sparingly and he who sows bountifully will reap bountifully… Each of you must give as you’ve made up your mind,’ or as we say here ‘give as your own means and needs allow.’
We are asked time and time again, especially during the coming months, to help others. You good people are more than generous as you respond to the different appeals that come our way, but we ask you to remember your own needs and your own obligations first and then do the best you can. As the first pastor of St. Gabriel’s, Fr. Egbert used to say “if everyone gives a little than no one has to give a lot – but on the other hand if everyone gives a lot then no one has to give a little.”
In every Eucharist we celebrate the generosity of Christ towards us as he gave his life for us and gives his life to us. May we be as generous with others as Christ is generous with us.