Sometimes the points Jesus make seem so straightforward, one has to wonder why his disciples seemed so befuddled most of the time. This passage appears to be one of those instances when our Lord was so plain spoken. His point is obvious. If Bill Gates gives a million dollars to charity, it may be the equivalent of you or I giving only a dollar, in terms of its impact to our finances. However, if a homeless man has only $5 to his name after a day spent begging on the streets, and he chooses to buy two items from the Wendy's dollar menu and put the other $3 in the collection basket at the church, his sacrifice is much more significant, because it represents more of a hardship for him.Jesus sat down opposite the treasury and observed how the crowd put money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow also came and put in two small coins worth a few cents. Calling his disciples to himself, he said to them, "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."
It's not hard to see the difference between the two gifts. Bill Gates is never going to miss that million dollars. But the $3 the homeless man gave could have bought him breakfast and lunch the next day. This is what Jesus meant when he said the rich men were contributing "from their surplus wealth." They were giving what they did not really need anyway. That's not what we are called to do. We are supposed to give the first fruits of our labor to God -- not the leftovers.
I think most of us get this. We can see how the $3 gift from the man who has nothing means more than the million dollar gift from the man who has everything. We get that, we really do. But...
But isn't there a part of us, perhaps a big part, that says, "So what?"
What does it matter how much it cost the giver to make the gift? What does it matter if the donor was giving from his surplus or not? The end result is that Bill Gate's million dollar gift can do far more to help people in need than the poor man's $3. Wouldn't any charitable organization much rather have the million dollar gift? In fact, if a few more billionaires like Bill Gates would make million dollar donations, then charities would not have to rely so much on small donations from poor people who probably can't afford to give anyway. They'd be better off. Wouldn't this actually be a better scenario?
From a purely pragmatic, secular, material vantage point, that is probably true. But since when was Jesus concerned about purely material, pragmatic things?
We are getting ready to enter into the season of Advent, which, like Lent, is a penitential season. These seasons of penance in the Church year are marked by prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Why do we do those things? We pray to help us grow in holiness. We fast to purify and discipline ourselves, so that we can grow in holiness. And we give alms to help those in need, right? Well yes, that is part of it. But almsgiving is grouped alongside prayer and fasting for a reason. Like prayer and fasting, the deeper, spiritual meaning of almsgiving is to help us grow in holiness, as well.
Almsgiving is a two sided proposition. On the one hand we give to help others. But that gift is simultaneously a sacrifice which helps us to sanctify ourselves. Living the Christian life, becoming more Christ-like, involves making sacrifices. It involves self-giving. This applies to all aspects of our lives -- we freely and joyfully give of our time, our talent, our love, and our material goods. If we only give of our surplus, then we may be achieving one of the goals of almsgiving, helping others, but we are neglecting the other goal, that of sacrifice; and so our gift is of no spiritual benefit to us.
When we give freely -- not just from our excess, shrewdly calculating what we can afford -- we foster a sense of detachment from our worldly goods. That is an excellent spiritual practice. It reminds us that our material possessions don't really belong to us. They belong to God; we are only borrowing them for a while. We don't actually need those things. We will not find joy and happiness in material possessions.
I recently read a homily from a priest who was making a point about why the Scriptures say it is so hard for a rich man to enter heaven. It is not because there is anything wrong with being rich, per se, this pastor said. But rich people are far less accustomed to relying on God. It is much harder for them to trust and ask others for help. They are too self-reliant, and this bleeds over into the spiritual realm.
The woman in today's first reading gives us the opposite example. Elijah comes to her and asks for a cake of bread. This poor woman only had a small handful of flour and a few drops of oil left to make bread with -- enough for her and her son to have one last small meal before they starved. Why didn't Elijah find the town baker to ask for bread? Surely someone like that would have been far more likely to have an extra loaf on hand he could give. He'd never miss it. But that's not the point. Elijah asked the poor woman who had nothing. And she gave to Elijah from her poverty. Elijah told her "Do not be afraid," and because she trusted in God, the scriptures tell us she and her son were able to eat for a year after that. She did not fear. And the Lord provided.
This is the spiritual practice Jesus wants us to foster in ourselves. Give freely from what you have. And do not fear. The more you give to help others -- not only money, but of your time, your love, your talents as well -- the more you give, the more you empty yourself, the more you will be filled with the spirit of Christ. The more you will grow in holiness. You will learn to rely on the Lord. You will learn to trust in Him for your needs. And only then will you find peace.