“I tell you solemnly this widow has put more in than all who have contributed to the treasury; for they have all put in money they had over, but she from the little she had has put in everything she possessed, all she had to live on” (Mark 12: 43-44)
The life of a widow in Israel at the time of Jesus was a very difficult and miserable one: a widow had no right to inheritance, they relied on their children, relatives and on charity for survival. They were often oppressed and denied justice. They were prone to abuses and were often lonely and sad. In many cultures today, widows are still being treated in similar ways, especially in many parts of Africa. It is therefore very remarkable to see the generosity of the widows that the Church presents to us as real sources of inspiration and challenge. These widows are our heroines today. The first in the First Reading (1 Kings 17: 10-16) and the second in the Gospel (Mark 12: 38-44). Two features stand out in these two widows, apart from the fact that they were both widows, they both sacrificed their very last means of survival; and they offered their gifts in faith.
Jesus had just finished denouncing the hypocrisy and the pretence of piety of the Pharisees, who “devour the houses of widows” (Mark 12: 40) when He went to sit quietly “opposite the treasury and watched people putting money into the treasury” (Mark 12: 41). The treasury must have been the thirteen collection boxes, called “The trumpets” because it was so shaped. Each was labelled according to its purpose. Jesus observed how people put money into them. Of all those who contributed on the day, Jesus was struck by the gift of the widow, who put in “two small coins, the equivalent of a penny” (Mark 12: 42). The coins were called “Lepta” or “Lepton”, which literally means “thin one.” It was the smallest of all the Jewish coins and it was worth one fortieth of one pence or one four-hundredth of a shekel. Jesus called His disciples aside and made a declaration and commendation that “this widow has put more in than all who have contributed to the treasury” even though among the contributors on the day were also the rich, “who put in a great deal” (Mark 12: 41).
Why was this so? Why was the “great deal” contribution of the rich smaller than the widow’s “two small coins”? Jesus explained that all the others who contributed on this occasion “put in money they had over, but she from the little she had has put in everything, all she had to live on”. The others put in from their surplus. They still had so much left over to live on. But, like the widow of Zarephath that we read about in the First reading, who shared her last handful of meal and a little oil with the prophet of God, this widow offered her last coins. “all she had to live on.” The difference lies in what each had left. The widow’s gift was reckless and sacrificial. The appreciation of Jesus attests to the fact that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts and His ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8); and that God judges the motives and not just the external actions of men (1 Samuel 16: 7). It is not the quantity of the gift but the quality of the heart that matters to God. This St. Paul tells us that God loves a cheerful giver (2 Corinthians 9: 7).
The offerings of the widows were gifts of faith. The widow in the First Reading trusted in the words of the God of Israel, spoken by the Prophet Elijah: “Jar of meal shall not be spent, jug of oil shall not be emptied, before the day the Lord sends rain upon the face of the earth (1 Kings 17: 14). She believed and put her faith in the word of God. And so it came to pass, she never ran out of food. The widow in the Gospel had no idea where her next coins or meal would come from but she simply trusted. Her gift was faith in action: faith, for me, is believing that God will certainly provide without knowing when and how He will do it. It is really not her business to know, but it is her duty to act as her faith leads.
Generosity is a choice. Everyone has a choice to be generous because everyone has something to offer. St. Pope John Paul II once wrote: “No one is so poor that he has nothing to give.” Tobit advised his son, Tobias, “Give alms in proportion to the amount you have: if you have much, give much; if you have little, do not be afraid to give something from the little you have” (Tobit 4: 8). Generosity does not depend on the size of the pocket but on the largeness of the heart. It has nothing to do with the balance in our bank accounts but has everything to do with the balance of the love in our hearts.
The reckless nature of the generosity of these widows is a reflection of the lavished love that God, the Father, has for us. These heroines have challenged us to scrutinize the motives of our charity; the quality of our gifts and the attitudes with which we make our offerings to God and to others. They have reminded us that in divine calculation, the smallest becomes the greatest when offered in faith and with love. May the Lord help us to give even when it hurts.