So then, we may wonder, is this poor widow to be imitated for her generosity or pitied as the hapless “victim of religious exploitation?” Well, I imagine her focus is simply on doing the right thing. Being generous is natural for her, and she wants to be in the mix, to do the communal act, get in line with the others, and throw in her two cents (literally.) It won’t make a big clang in the collection box like the offerings of the well-heeled, and she could stay on the sidelines and most people would pity her and understand, but she chooses to do otherwise. Duty, generosity are her way of being, and giving to God is everything for her. She freely chooses to give her all. She freely chooses to give from her poverty. And it is this exquisite choice that makes what she does, what she gives, so precious and ultimately so imitable. And of course, Jesus notices. How could he not, he himself is the extravagant outpouring of the Father’s reckless love for us?
I am reminded of a scene from my childhood. It’s the morning of my birthday, and I have just come in with the mail, anxious to open my birthday cards. I’m tearing them open. There is one from Aunt Rosie, recently widowed; two crisp dollar bills fall to the table. Spoiled brat that I am; I pay little attention. My mom is there in a flash, “Who sent you that card?” “Aunty Rosie.” “Oh, God. Call to thank her now, please.” “Hi, Aunt Rose, thank you for the birthday gift.” My mother snatches the receiver from my hand, “Ro, you know you shouldn’t have done that. You can’t afford it.” Rose was living on a wing and a prayer; she had worked in a little hat shop; Uncle Angelo had projected movies at the local theater. They had educated two kids. She had nothing. The gift was huge. My mother understood.
Like my mom, Jesus understands the widow’s gift and her predicament. Jesus notices the widow’s offering perhaps because it is his story too. Hounded, harassed, and eventually condemned by the local religious authorities, he too will freely choose to give over “all he has to live on,” his very lifeblood and his precious body because love is more important. Love and giving from the heart, real generosity always have the quiet power to overthrow oppression. Compassionate mercy is enfleshed in Christ Jesus. It is he alone who really truly understands- understands each of us, our context, our story, our stories.
And we are invited to have this compassionate mind in us, which was also in Christ Jesus. And so a huge part of our life together in this monastery is coming to understand each other, to learn the stories, and perhaps learn compassion. (There are so many questions when you first get here. Here’s one that got me. Why was one old monk constantly squirreling things away, cans and bottles among other things? Then you learn. A brother tells you he grew up in an orphanage; hoarding was how he managed as a kid. It made sense.)
Some years ago we heard the story of a parish conducted by an active religious order. In the community there was one priest who was the bane of the brethren, judged by all (but especially the younger men) as lazy and inefficient, always disheveled; clearly an embarrassment to the apostolate of this eminent Order. He slept in late and could only manage to preside each day at the noon Mass, then have lunch and go back to his room. They never saw much of him. And soon they never saw him at all. He didn’t show up for his Mass one day; and the rector found him dead in his cluttered, stuffy room. After he died the doctor told the rector of the rare incapacitating disease this priest had endured for years; the bone-numbing fatigue that was part of it. The rector recounted the priest’s daily routine- the one Mass, the drowsy lunch, the laziness. “Oh no, not laziness, Father,” the doctor assured him. “The little he was able to do was truly heroic.”
Maybe we come to understand. So much has happened. So many stories here in this sacred space this morning, the stories that we are, that we carry within, stories that have formed and sometimes deformed and burden us still; so many triumphs and sorrows that have marked us. Only Jesus sees and really understands the little we have to live on, and what we live with. He always notices. And slowly but surely we are invited to begin doing likewise.
We are reminded today that it’s never ever about the entitlement of a know-it-all Scribe, but always about compassion. The Gospel reveals to us a Jesus who sees with perfect clarity- names the pretentions, sees most clearly the unfairness, the injustice, and above all notices the generosity of one who gives without counting the cost. Even now, our generosity, the little things we do no matter how unremarkable give him pleasure. Please believe it. His promise to us, as to Elijah’s widow in the First Reading, is that when we are generous, we will have more than enough to get by. We can afford it.
Our task is to keep noticing with the compassionate merciful eyes of Christ, to have his compassionate mind in us, and so to get on our way to becoming compassion for one another. It’s hard work, but it’s worth it. To become compassion; we must consume Compassion himself at this altar.
Lord, teach us to be generous.
Teach us to serve you as you deserve;
to give and not to count the cost,
to toil and not to seek for rest,
to labor and not to ask for reward,
save that of knowing that we do your will. Ignatius Loyola
Reflection by one of the monks with some insights from Donohue & Harrington in Sacra Pagina.