November 5, 2021

Christ the Cornerstone

The challenge of giving back to God in love

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson

“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” (Mk 12:43-44).

The Gospel reading for the Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time (Mk 12:38-44) tells the familiar story of what has come to be known as “the widow’s mite.” St. Mark tells us that Jesus “sat down opposite the treasury and observed how the crowd put money into the treasury” (Mk 12:41). As Jesus watches the people contributing money, he observes that “many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow also came and put in two small coins worth a few cents” (Mk 12:41-42).

The “two small coins” that St. Mark tells us were “worth a few cents” have been identified as bronze mites (lepta in Greek) that are together worth a quadrans, the smallest Roman coin. A mite, or lepton, was the smallest and least valuable coin in circulation in Judea at the time of Jesus, worth about six minutes of an average daily wage. This is certainly not a substantial financial contribution, but as Jesus tells his disciples, the widow’s gift is worth far more than the large sums contributed by the wealthy.

Jesus does not disparage the large gifts from wealthy donors, but he does praise the widow’s sacrificial gift of two small coins. Why? Because “she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood” (Mk 12:44). The widow has made a substantive, sacrificial gift. After contributing her two small coins, she has nothing left. The wealthy donors have made significant large gifts that, presumably, will make a difference in the operations of the Temple. But their gifts come from surplus, not substance. In effect, they are giving what is left over after all their other needs are met.

Who is the good steward here? The wealthy who have lots to give and share their wealth generously? Or the poor woman whose small coins are practically worthless? The answer is obvious, but the reasons behind this answer are not always so clear. After all, stewardship is not about money. It’s about giving from the heart.

When our Lord praises the widow for giving “all she had, her whole livelihood” (Mk 12:44), he is commenting on her disposition, or fundamental attitude, toward life. St. Mark gives us no information about this poor widow’s situation. We can assume she lives from hand to mouth. It’s likely that she has experienced much hardship, disappointment and loneliness. But she is not bitter or angry. She gives freely from the little she has without complaining or holding back. She is generous, as God is generous, giving out of a superabundance of love.

We also know nothing about the wealthy donors. If they are anything like the people who give generously to support the work of the Church here in central and southern Indiana, we can assume they are good, honest, charitable people who want to share what they have with others. In all likelihood, these rich people who put large sums into the treasury are also good stewards who give back to God out of gratitude for their many blessings.

So what is the point of the story? We might say that the Lord is reminding his disciples (all of us) that how much we give is far less important than its impact on the way we live. If we give whatever is left over, nothing much changes in our lifestyle or in our attitudes toward the people we are helping with our charity. On the other hand, if we give from substance (from our livelihood), we have to make sacrifices, and that always requires a shift in our thinking and our attitude.

Stewardship is about how we give much more than how much we give. This does not mean that we can hold back (giving one small coin instead of two). On the contrary, it means that regardless of our wealth (or lack of it), we are challenged to be responsible stewards who are grateful, accountable, generous and willing to give back to the Lord with increase.

There’s an old Egyptian proverb that says, “As long as your heart is full of love, you always have something to give.” Jesus praises the widow’s generosity because of the depth of her love. She is recognized as a generous steward because her sacrificial gifts come from a heart overflowing with love.

Let’s follow her example, giving from substance more than from surplus. Let’s pray for the grace to fill our hearts with love and, so, embrace stewardship as a way of life that is far more valuable than money. †

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