In Sunday’s gospel reading (Mk 12:38-44 ) we hear three contrasting positions on the use of money:
- The scribes – glory seeking religious leaders of the day – rapaciously consume the savings of poverty stricken widows.
- Rich people who put large sums in the temple treasury
- A widow who gave the last of her meager savings to the temple – “all she had, her whole livelihood.
Through the years, I’ve heard this gospel interpreted as a criticism of the rich for failing to contribute even larger sums. The meaning is different and in many ways more challenging than a surface appeal for more funds. To get to the meaning, it helps to compare this story with the advice of St. Paul, in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, (Chapters 8 and 9.)
This gospel passage led to extensive discussion among my friends at lunch on Friday and at home over the weekend. Here are some observations:
- In the gospel Jesus offers a criticism of the scribes,
- Jesus recognizes – but does not criticize – the rich for contributing large sums, and
- He contrasts the behavior of both with the widow.
The behavior of the three reveals a spiritual reality about wealth. The possession of wealth can be poison, making one so grasping that it leads to power and glory-seeking as well as a willingness to defraud the poor. Wealth can lead to contributions of large sums – presumably on-going behavior on the part of the rich people. The widow’s willingness to “contribute all she had, her whole livelihood” is also a reflection of psychological and spiritual reality. Most of us are willing “to turn over our lives and wills to the care of God” only after we have been through a dark night and learned that our wealth cannot save us. One wonders what led the rich people to be so generous.
These observations led to a set of questions:
- How should any of us decide how generous we should be with our funds?
- Assuming that the “rich people” know that the scribes were mis-spending funds“ on honor and glory, even to the point devouring the houses of widows,” what was their responsibility?
- How do we choose among contributions to the temple or to other worth-while charities?
- What happens if we interpret the phrase “all that she had” to mean more than just finances?
We get some help on the first question from 2 Corinthians 8. (Note that this letter is Christianity’s first direct mail solicitation of funds!) Paul praises the Macedonians who gave
“according to their means, I can testify, and beyond their means, ..”(2 Cor. 8:6)
Then he gives the people of Corinth some different advice on how much to give:
For if the eagerness is there, it is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have; not that others should have relief while you are burdened, but that as a matter of equality your surplus at the present time should supply their needs, so that their surplus may also supply your needs, that there may be equality.
This advice doesn’t let the Corinthians off the hook. While they need not impoverish themselves, they – and the rest of us – still need to determine how much is surplus.
2 Cor. 9:6-7 offers more advice on how to how to discern how we should contribute, and on where we should make our contributions:
Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.
First, there is the matter of trust. We are reminded that if we sow generously we will reap generously. Recall, that in the gospel, the “rich people” put “large sums” into the temple treasury. Second, we can’t evade personal responsibility by acceding to the requests of the scribes. Each of must give what (and to whom) we have “decided in (our) own heart” is the appropriate. We are not to yield to compulsion or be reluctant. Third, what are we to do if we are reluctant or not cheerful about the amount we are asked to give?
- Acknowledge to ourselves and to God that our gift is not cheerful.
- Reflect on our reasons for being reluctant. The rich people should have been reluctant. If they realized that the scribes were merely using their contributions so that they could “go around in long robes” and “accept places of honor.”
- If we are reluctant because we sense that our contributions are being misspent, we should speak up to the temple authorities – as Jesus often did.
- If, after speaking up, we find that the scribes are continuing to misspend funds, “devour the houses of widows” (or, not to put too sharp a point on it, the innocence of young children,) we are not excused from our obligation to contribute. We are decide in our own hearts where and how much to give. The rich people might have given generously to the widows instead of the scribes. The scribes might have paid attention.
- If, after all of that, we are still not cheerful, we should give less and ask God for more guidance. There will be further opportunities to give.
Lastly, what happens if we broaden the question beyond finances? What if we interpret the widow’s “all that she had” to apply to our time and talents, as well as our treasures?
My wife is a teacher. There are many days when she gives all that she has, in terms of professional skills and caring, to her students. Three of our four children are working for universities. The fourth is a teacher. Each of them could do much better financially in another occupation, yet they are giving all of their professional skills as educators. One of my confirmation sponsees, is now managing a grocery store? He can give all that he has of his professional skills so that customers can purchase food a fair price and his employees can earn fair wages.
Saturday we watched The Longest Day in honor of Veteran's day and of my wife’s uncle Raymond who was in the invasion at Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge. The men who died there gave all that they had, or as Lincoln said at Gettysburg, “the last full measure of devotion.”
Don’t let the preachers fool you. The story about the widow’s mite represents an challenge much greater than just fattening the collection basket.