Mite-y Generosity, Thirty-Second Sunday of Ordinary Time (B), November 12, 2006

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua Church, New Bedford, MA
32nd Sunday of OT, Year B
November 12, 2006
1Kings 17:10-16; Heb 9:24-28; Mk 12:38-44

1) In last Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus told us clearly what the first and greatest commandment is, the most important thing we have to do in life: to love God with all our mind, heart, soul and strength. Love, as we know, is more than merely words and feelings, but is seen in deeds. Love is choosing to act for the good of another, sacrificing oneself for sake of someone or something else. In today’s Gospel, Jesus presents us with a standard to help us to determine, in our concrete circumstances, whether we are really trying to love God with all we are and have.

2) After Jesus had finished his “formal” teaching in the courtyard of the Temple of Jerusalem, he began to “people watch,” in order to continue to instruct his apostles about how to put what he taught into action. They saw the stream of people putting money in the temple treasury, which was a large trumpet shaped receptacle leading to a secure money box. People would put their coins in the horn at the top, which was like a funnel, and then the sound of the coin would resonate as it rolled down the metal tubing into the box. Many rich people, St. Mark tells us, were putting in large sums and “making a lot of noise” on the treasury trumpet. But then a poor widow came and put in two lepta, two small coins which together were worth about a penny and likely barely made a sound. Then Jesus gave a surprising lesson that obviously the disciples never forgot. Jesus praised the poor widow rather than all the rest, saying that she had contributed more than all them, for they “gave out of their surplus, but she gave everything she had, all she had to live on.” This widow, because of her poverty, could easily have been excused for giving nothing. She could have easily chosen to drop into the trumpet only one of the coins and kept the other for herself. But she didn’t. She gave it all. And her generosity was praised by Jesus and will remain until the end of time.

3) What could have moved her to give to the temple even what she needed to survive? There’s only one reason: her deep faith. She believed not simply that God exists, or that he worked various miracles in the past to help her people. She believed so much in him and was so convinced of the importance of what was going on in God’s house that she wanted to dedicate her life and all her goods to continuing and expanding that work of salvation. She accounted the continuance and expansion of that work even more than her own life. That was her faith — and it is this faith, rather than the fact she was a widow, that links this Gospel to the first reading. There we find another widow, in Zarephath, who used all she and her son had to survive in order to feed Elijah the prophet. She had faith in God and therefore trusted in the prophet God had sent, sacrificing her last food and drink in order to feed the prophet. God rewarded her generosity by making the little oil and flood miraculously last for a year in order to save both her, her son and Elijah through a brutal famine. The lesson is that we save our lives not by grasping on to what we have, but by sacrificing it out of love for others. It is only when we die to ourselves so that others may live that we ourselves survive.

4) The stronger our faith, the more we are willing to trust in God and the more we are willing to sacrifice. The more we love God with all our mind, heart, soul and strength, the more we will give of ourselves and what we have to the advance of his work. The first apostles, moved by faith in Christ, left fishing businesses and lucrative tax collection seats behind in order to follow Christ, even though they would have, like him, no bread, no money, no bags, no change of clothes, and no place to lay their head (Lk 9:3; 9:58). The early Christians, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles, used to sell their property and come to lay the proceeds at the feet of the apostles in order to advance the proclamation of the Gospel (Acts 4:34-35). But we don’t go back two thousand years to Palestine to come up with such examples. We can stay right here and go back a century to our ancestors at this parish, who sacrificed so much in order to build this beautiful temple to God. They offered to God not only sizeable portions of their paltry paychecks, but also so much of their elbow grease, coming here before and after work to build the foundation and to work with the masons, engineers and architects to conserve money so that more could be spent constructing to God’s glory a Church far more beautiful. It’s with good reason that over the entrance of the main door of the Church there is a Latin inscription that says, “The hard-working people of Saint Anthony have built this temple to the Lord.” I have no doubt that one hundred years ago when they were sacrificing so much to erect this munificent house of worship, Jesus was pulling St. Anthony and the apostles aside in heaven and saying that so many in this parish were giving much more than the rich Catholics in other parts of the city, because they were forsaking savings, going without vacations, not caring about personal aggrandizement so that they could build something worthier of God, something that expressed their faith in God, something that made concrete that they loved him more than they loved even themselves. Churches like this are not built by poor people unless they have a much deeper than average faith. Edifices like this are not erected except by those who love God as God deserves to be loved.

5) Nor are Churches like this maintained unless Catholics continue to love God with all their minds, hearts, souls, and financial resources. Today, still, Jesus wants to be able to praise each and all of us for our generosity, just like he lauded the poor widow, the apostles, the early Christians and without question our ancestors in faith at St. Anthony’s. To keep a parish like this going and growing requires much more than Catholics in other places have to do. They don’t have our eighty thousand dollar annual heating bills. They don’t have our repair costs, which are super-sized just like everything else around here. “To whom more is given,” Jesus said, “more is to be expected” (Lk 12:48), and that is certainly the case here. We have been given one of the most beautiful churches any of us will ever see, but with it comes higher responsibilities. And these responsibility are paradoxically a great gift for us, because we’re burdened by the need to sacrifice more to sustain it; such bills almost force us, so to speak, to push ourselves to the limit in generosity, to love God and his work not just in word but in deeds, to have to put our money where our faith is.

6) Here — fortunately or unfortunately — there are no “rich people” putting in “large sums.” The only way this parish Church will survive is if the people in this parish, like our forefathers in the faith and the widow in the Gospel, give not just from our surplus but from our needs. The Lord knows our situation and he knows whether we are truly sacrificing to continue his mission. I haven’t been here that long, but I’ve already encountered some people who are sacrificing quite a bit, and their generosity never ceases to move me. I know of one family with three small kids on one tiny weekly salary that still manages to give $50 a week to God — ten percent of their gross income. I know of a single woman who has a low-paying job and who constantly takes jobs on the side to make ends meet, but who nevertheless gives $40 a week. I know of a family with serious medical bills and not the greatest employment situation that, even though it’s hard, give $25-30 every Sunday. There’s an elderly homebound widow on a fixed income of social security and a tiny pension who, even though she’s buried under a blizzard of prescription co-payments, still manages to sacrifice enough to put $10 in every weekly envelope, saying that she knows the Church has bills, too. These stories all move me very much, not because of the amount they give but because of the sacrifice they make in giving, because of the faith that inspires them to give until it hurts. As we learn from today’s Gospel, it’s not so much the size of the contribution that matters, but the sacrifice that the gift entails. And these gifts I’ve mentioned are only the sacrifices I know about. The Lord is probably aware of several parishioners whose sacrifices each week are even greater, and one of those may be you. If so, thank you on behalf of almighty God for your generosity. Know that the Lord sees your generosity, just like he saw the poor widow’s and won’t forget them.

7) But we also have to note, with a sense of shame and regret, that most Catholics in the United States cannot be honestly called generous like the widow or like these parishioners I’ve mentioned. Many, in fact, are downright cheap with God. The average Catholic adult in the United States gives 0.7% of his or her annual income to the Church — less than one percent, which equals about $122.59 a year, or $2.36 a week. The average Catholic household (all the members in a home combined) gives 1.4% to the Church. This is one-third to one-half of what Protestants give to their churches. And Catholics in the northeast — where there is far more education and in general a higher-standard of living — are by far the least generous of all Catholics in our country, giving about one-third less than our brothers and sisters do in every other part of the nation, including areas where most of the Mass-goers are recent immigrants.

8 ) This is not just an economic problem for the Catholic Church, especially in our area, but a moral problem, because, as the economists tell us, how we spend our money is a sign of what we value. These figures show us that many Catholics just do not value the mission of the Church enough to sacrifice much to continue and expand it. To take just one example, if a Catholic is spending more each month on cable television than he or she is giving to the Church, then that person simply thinks that having more television channels at one’s fingertips is more important than advancing the mission of the Church. Most of us, I think, would be embarrassed to leave a waitress a $2.36 tip at an inexpensive restaurant, yet fifty percent of Catholics seemingly without shame give that or less to the work of God each week. I’m confident I do not need to belabor the point. But I think the small value and priority that many Catholics, by their economic choices, give to the mission of the Church is one of the principle reasons why the Church in the United States is suffering. One Protestant Biblical commentator from a mainstream church that is experiencing similar struggles, summed up the situation in a commentary on the scene about poor widow: “Real giving must be sacrificial,” William Barclay writes. “The amount of the gift never matters so much as its cost to the giver. It’s not the size of the gift but the sacrifice. Real generosity gives until it hurts. For many of us, it is a real question if our giving to God’s work is any sacrifice at all. Few people will do without their pleasures to give a little more to the work of God. It may well be a sign of the decadence of the Church and the failure of our Christianity that gifts have to be coaxed out of church people, and that often they will not give at all unless they get something back in the way of entertainment or of goods. There can be few of us who read this story [of the poor widow] without shame.”

9) Not only does the Church as a whole suffer from this lack of generous stewardship, but those who give little suffer spiritually as individuals, too. Jesus tells us in the Gospel that “the measure with which we measure will be measured back to us” (Lk 6:38). In other words, if we give generously, we will receive generously; if we give sparingly, we will receive sparingly (see 2 Cor 9:6). This is not because God withholds his graces from the stingy, but because the human heart is a two-way street. If a person’s heart is open and generous, then it is capable of receiving from God the blessings He wishes to give. If it is tight and miserly, on the other hand, then very little of God’s grace will be able to penetrate it. We saw this encapsulated in the episode of the rich young man in the Gospel (see Mt 19:16-30; Mk 10:17-31). He came to Christ and asked him the most important question anyone can ask, how to inherit eternal life. The Lord told him to keep the commandments and then listed them. But the rich young man replied that he had kept all of these since he youth, yet realized that he was still missing something in order to be happy. The Lord looked on him with love and said that if he wished to be perfectly happy, he should go, sell all that he has, give the proceeds to the poor, and then come follow him. At that the rich young man’s face tell to the ground and he walked away sad. Faced with a choice between Jesus and his money, between happiness and wealth, the rich young man chose his money, and went away sad because money can never buy happiness. In the same way, if we wish to receive the fullness of the graces Christ wants to give us in this life and in the next, then we, unlike the rich young man, need to detach ourselves from our possessions, from our money, and devote it to the sake of the kingdom. Otherwise, if we continue to want to hold on to our money, then we will walk away from Jesus sad, too, for it is only in giving that we receive.

10) My last point is to reiterate that in this teaching, like in all his lessons, Jesus never merely said “Do what I say,” but always, “Follow me!” We see this clearly by where today’s scene with the poor widow is situated in the life of Jesus. It is sandwiched between last week’s instruction on loving God with all our mind, heart, soul and strength, and next week’s prophecy about the last days. Immediately afteward, St. Mark moves to the Passover, the Last Supper, and Jesus’ crucifixion and death. In other words, this teaching about generosity is enveloped between Christ’s teaching about total self-giving love and his own putting those words into practice. In Jesus’ calling us to give not just what is extra but what is essential, not just what is left but what is right, he’s merely telling us to love as he has loved us, all the way, holding nothing back. He gave his life in exchange for ours, valuing us more than he valued himself. As he comes to strengthen us to “do this in memory” of him, we ask him to make us as generous as he is, to open our hearts fully to the gift of his grace, to help us to love him with all our mind, heart, soul, strength and possessions, so that we might experience his happiness in this world and forever with him in the next.