In a recent column, I spoke about the rich man who could not give up his many possessions to follow Jesus. This week’s Gospel reading also talks about our relationship to material goods. Once again there are rich people. They donate to the Temple some of their surplus wealth as a display of generosity so that others will praise them. These gifts, however, do not really come from devotion to the Lord. Jesus understands and comments on the hypocrisy. He contrasts these hypocrites with the poor widow who gives up everything for the Lord.
We can almost hear the loud thuds as the rich people drop their donations in the temple treasury. When the widow approaches with her gift, there is barely a sound as the two small coins fall into the donation box. Jesus hears this tinkle and praises the widow for her generous gift. He notes that generosity is not merely a matter of quantity, but rather the spirit with which the gift is given. The widow has shown love of God by giving all that she has. She earns Jesus’ praise.
There is, however, much more to this event than mere generosity. The gift tells us about the widow’s great love of God. In the earliest times the Jewish people were told in Deuteronomy to take care of widows, orphans and strangers. The first reading from 1 Kings tells of Elijah’s encounter with another poor widow and the way God took care of that widow, her son and Elijah until the drought afflicting the land was over. The widow of Zarephath and the widow in the Gospel know that God cares for those in need. They live with confidence in the goodness of God.
The Old Testament tells us many times that God is faithful to his promises. Both widows have interiorized this great thought. They understand the underlying significance of being part of the chosen people. The Gospel widow knows all the stories of God taking care of women like Sarah, Ruth and Esther. Each found themselves in difficulties and depended on God to help them because they were part of his chosen race. Because the Gospel widow believes in the underlying truth manifested in the stories of her tradition, she can give herself over to a loving God who will protect her.
Often it is the neediest who show us the significance of generosity. Lack of material goods can teach us that wealth is something to be shared; such actions provide an opportunity to depend on God in special ways. One of the most difficult lessons for wealthy people to learn is that what we possess is bestowed on us to share with the needy so that we might depend on God’s goodness more fully. When we give our two coins, we tell God that we trust and depend on his fidelity.
Fr. Treloar, an assistant director at Jesuit Retreat House, Oshkosh, has served as a professor, lecturer, author and academic administrator.