“I tell you truly, this poor widow put in more than all the rest; for those others have all made offerings from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has offered her whole livelihood” (Lk 21:3-4).
There are biblical prescriptions for giving a tithe, meaning ten percent. We can see an example of this in the book of Genesis when Abraham offers a tithe of his possessions to the priest Melchizedek in thanksgiving to God for a successful battle and rescue of his nephew Lot (cf. Genesis 28:20-22). Tithing was practiced consistently and this, or the giving of alms, was most likely what Jesus was observing at the temple.
The widow far surpassed giving a simple tithe. Widows in Jesus’ time were often destitute and needed care and support from others. They were often recipients of alms. There was a long tradition in Judaism of the mandate to care for the widow and the orphan. This widow, though giving a significantly smaller amount than the heftier donations by those giving before her, proportionally gave much more, indeed, “her whole livelihood.”
St. Mother Teresa understood these verses very well, especially after receiving her “second call” in which she left her Loretto Convent and went to serve among the poorest of the poor in Calcutta. Often in her talks, she mentioned giving until it hurts, not from our surplus, but more like the widow. To her, this was true giving.
One of the many examples of giving Mother Teresa witnessed was when she gave a cup of rice to a poor Hindu family. The mother was very grateful for the gift and as soon as she received the rice, she measured out half of her portion and went to her Muslim neighbors to share what she had received. Upon her return, the woman told Mother Teresa, “They are hungry too.”
What impressed Mother Teresa was not that the woman shared the meager amount that she had received, she had often observed the generosity of the poor. She was touched by the fact that this woman was aware of her neighbor’s need.
Mother’s charge to us is, “Are we aware?”
Are we willing to see the needs within our own family as well as the needs of others? If so, are we then willing to share? We do not need to share just monetarily. We can and ought to discern how we can give of our time, talent, and treasure.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus’ observation and pointing out how the widow “gave more than all the rest” shows us how to participate in the kingdom of God. We are to recognize all that we have is a gift from God and all truly belongs to him. We are simply stewards of what he has given us. This teaching is apparent in the parables of the talents, the gold coins, and Matthew 25 – what you do for the least of my brothers and sisters, you do to me.
When we are willing to embrace the love of Jesus, he will empower us to be better stewards of our time, talent, and treasure so that all of our life is a participation in the building up of the kingdom of God. In this way, we will see not just poverty, hunger, or immigration, but a person who is poor, a human being who is hungry, a brother or sister who needs help and support to begin a better life. When we are willing to share the love we have received, we will not see just an abstract problem but through the eyes of God we will see the opportunities for new relationships. We will also be more likely to put Mother Teresa’s words into practice, to “give until it hurts with a smile,” so that we too can experience the joy of sharing God’s love.
Photo of St. Mother Teresa that I took when I saw her in Massachusetts in the early ’90s.