Here is the homily preached at St. Peter Parish in Schulte for the Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time [Year B], November 8, 2015.
The Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time [B]
I Kings 1:10-16 + Hebrews 9:24-28 + Mark 12:38-44
November 8, 2015
“ ‘…she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.’ ”
On average, every priest at some point after his ordination serves on the diocesan Presbyteral Council. Sometimes the Presbyteral Council is simply called the “Priests’ Council”. This council is to the bishop what a Parish Council is to a pastor. This Priests’ Council advises the bishop on topics that relate to the good of the bishop’s flock.
About ten years ago I served a term on this Priests’ Council. During that term, the council discussed various parish policies about the consumption of alcohol on parish property. Several priests argued that all the parishes of the diocese ought to follow the same policy, and that this policy ought to be very restrictive against allowing alcohol, if not banning it outright. Other priests argued that such a policy would cause more problems than it would address. The arguing was lengthy and intense. During a break, I heard one priest say to another, “In my parish on any given Sunday, I’d rather preach against birth control than preach against alcohol.” His point was that alcohol is one of those topics in parish life that is what’s called a “third rail”: a no-win situation that when broached brings only trouble.
In the life of the Church and her members, some consider not only alcohol and sex to be third rails. Another such third rail is money.
Nonetheless, out of the forty-some parables that Jesus preached, about half of them concern money. Jesus taught about the significance of money not only through parables, though.
In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus “sat down opposite the [Jewish] treasury and observed how the crowd put money into the treasury.” The key word in that sentence is “how”. Jesus did not sit down and observe that the crowd put money into the treasury, but rather, how the crowd put in money. The word “how” sums up what Jesus is teaching us here: namely, “how” we—as Jesus’ followers—ought to give money to God.
St. Mark the Evangelist points out to us a simple contrast. On the one hand are the “rich people [who] put in large sums”. On the other hand is the “poor widow [who] put in two small coins”. Based on this contrast, Jesus then teaches His disciples in two simple sentences, saying: “ ‘Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.’ ”
I want to focus today’s homily on this phrase that describes the widow’s giving to God: that is, “from her poverty”. What Jesus is teaching us is summed up in those three little words: “from her poverty”.
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If you’ve lived in the Diocese of Wichita for even a few years, you know that this is the time of year when our focus turns to a renewal of stewardship. The scriptures at our Sunday Masses lend themselves to reflection on what stewardship is all about. It’s the custom in our diocese to sum up stewardship with three “T”s: the giving of Time, Talent and Treasure. Jesus is clearly teaching us in today’s Gospel about the third of these “T”s. But Jesus is not just saying to us, “Give from your treasure to God”. There are several layers of meaning to how Jesus wants us to give.
When we think about how different members of the same congregation might contribute, there are several possibilities. The simplest would be for every person in the congregation to give the same amount. For example, the pastor of a parish might ask each of his parishioners to give ten dollars a week. But most pastors would not ask such a thing, because it doesn’t begin to approach what Jesus is calling for. It’s overly simple. So if not that way, what other possibilities of giving are there?
In some congregations, when a pastor preaches about giving one’s treasure to God, there’s a certain saying that the pastor will use: “Not equal giving, but equal sacrifice.” This saying is thought to reflect what Jesus is getting at in today’s Gospel passage: “Not equal giving, but equal sacrifice.” But is this actually what Jesus is teaching us here?
Oftentimes that saying—“Not equal giving, but equal sacrifice”—is explained in terms of the biblical practice of tithing. As you know, the English word “tithe” comes from the word “tenth”. The practice of giving a tenth of one’s income to God is rooted in Sacred Scripture. Now it’s true that the Catechism of the Catholic Church does not refer to tithing when it speaks about the Christian’s responsibility to contribute to the Church. But tithing is still held as an ideal in the Church, as a goal if not always as an obligation.
Why would tithing not be held up, always and everywhere, as the form of how every Christian ought to give from his treasure to God? Just for the sake of illustration, let’s say that the currency that the characters in today’s Gospel passage put into the treasury was dollars. And let’s say that one of those “rich people” earned $100,000 a year, and that in today’s Gospel passage, this rich person put $10,000 into the treasury: in other words, 10% of his annual income. Certainly that’s a large sum.
So then imagine that the “poor widow” had an annual income of 20 small coins. The “two small coins” that she put into the treasury was ten percent of her annual income, but at the time of today’s Gospel passage, those “two small coins” were all she had in her possession. She had no savings or checking account, no mutual funds or IRA, no annuity, stocks or bonds. She had no husband, no children or extended family, no Social Security or Lord’s Diner. This widow, “from her poverty, … contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.”
By contrast, the rich person who put ten thousand dollars into the treasury had plenty more where that came from. As Jesus said, the rich person “contributed from [his] surplus wealth”. So while the rich person and the poor widow both may have given equal percentages of their income, the rich person still gave from his surplus, while the poor widow gave “from her poverty”.
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Jesus points our attention towards—and wants us to imitate—this “poor widow” giving “from her poverty”. That’s easier said than done. But there are at least two ways to make this easier. The first is a virtue to be cultivated, and the second is a practice to be followed.
First is the virtue of trust: specifically, putting one’s trust in God. It’s one thing to say that God is trustworthy. Is you asked each person in a roomful of Christians whether God is worthy of his or her trust, each of them would likely say: “Yes, God is worthy of my trust.” But in our day-to-life, we find it difficult to make such an act of trust concretely.
The virtue of putting trust in God first means acknowledging that God is your providential Father. God is not only your Creator, similar to how your blood father created you through the human act of begetting. God is more than just your Creator. He is your providential Father. Unlike your earthly father, God as your providential Father leads you not only during your infancy and childhood, but every day of your life on this earth, even should you live past the age of one hundred. He also leads you every day of your life beyond the door of death. God has made you for Himself, and you can only reach Him in Heaven by surrendering each day to Him who is your providential Father.
Beyond that, this virtue of trust in God also means acknowledging that God knows you better than you know yourself. God knows your strengths better than you do. He also knows your weaknesses and sins better than you do. But God loves you anyhow. Your providential Father loves you not in spite of your sins, but through your sins. He takes your sins and uses your sins as a means of showing His love for you. Your Father’s forgiveness strengthens you for His purposes, for His plans for your life. God has made you for Himself.
Beyond that, this virtue of trust in God also means acknowledging that your finances—what you do with the money in your life—is part and parcel of your providential Father’s plan for your life. How you use the money in your life can help you grow in all the major Christian virtues. But more importantly, how you use the money in your life can help you fulfill the plan that God has for your life.
So then, if Jesus wants us to imitate the “poor widow” who gives “from her poverty”, and if trusting in God is the virtue that chiefly strengthens us for this giving, what practice might help us concretely to give like the “poor widow”? It’s the practice of giving “first fruits”.
Giving God one’s first fruits is rooted in Sacred Scripture. Of course, the examples in the Bible of giving from one’s first fruits are literal, based on harvesting different grains grown by many of God’s People. In our day and time, not a large percent of the population farms. In fact, that percentage seems to diminish every year.
But consider a farmer with 1000 acres. In ancient times, having only primitive tools meant that it would take him a long time to harvest 1000 acres. At any point during that stretch of time, bad weather could destroy the remaining crops. So for a farmer to give the very first hundred of his thousand acres, not knowing how much of the remaining 90% would ever be harvested, was a very concrete act of trust on the part of that farmer.
With livestock, something similar was at work. Giving the “first fruits” of livestock meant giving the best ten percent of one’s cattle, or sheep, or what have you, rather than giving the runts of the litter.
So how would a modern person relate those biblical examples to giving one’s treasure to God? How could one today imitate the “poor widow” in giving one’s “first fruits”?
Maybe the simplest way would be—to use a modern expression—by giving to God off the top. If you haven’t yet gone green when it comes to paying bills, and if you don’t pay all your bills by means of automatic withdrawal, then each month you have a stack of paper bills to pay. Many Christians are tempted to give God their “leftover treasure”: if, that is, there is any treasure left over after the bills are paid. Instead, you can metaphorically offer God the first fruits of your monthly treasure by giving to God a sacrificial amount before even touching the first bill that needs to be paid.
There are many other practical ways to include one’s personal finances within the sphere of one’s spiritual life, rather than falsely thinking that the two have nothing to do with each other. This inclusion—your finances within your spiritual life—demands the virtue of trust. The foundation of this trust is the wisdom that the “poor widow” demonstrated: knowing oneself to be nothing without God. Knowing oneself to be nothing without God is the foundation that allows us to give from our poverty, and allows God to bear abundant fruit through our lives.