Her whole livelihood

April 17, 2013

Dear brothers and sisters,

I am taking the good news today from Mark 12:41-44.

He 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.”

This passage is in direct, sharp contrast to the preceding verses excoriating the self-important postures of the scribes who devoured the houses of widows.

Barclay remarks, “Real generosity gives until it hurts.” This is one of the few times I have to disagree with him. I have been in fundraising nearly all my working career. I have been fortunate to work with people who give both small and large sums in relation to their incomes and wealth. My observations and my own experience of giving is that a meaningful gift — that is, a gift from the heart — doesn’t hurt at all; it brings a great deal of joy and satisfaction and a desire to do it again. I think the point that Jesus was making goes directly to that. The widow gave all she had because she loved God and wanted to express that love by giving all she could. I can imagine that she gave of her time and energy as well to friends and neighbors who needed help — baking an extra loaf of bread or tending to someone sick in bed. Generosity of the heart permeates the whole life of the giver.

I am reminded of a column I wrote fourteen years ago for development professionals. My experiences since then have only reinforced my beliefs.

“It [giving] clothes the giver in a kind of luminescence that is unmistakable — a peaceful glow that is at once energizing and calming. It has little to do with the size of the gift. Rather, it is the giver’s sense of participation in a purpose greater than him- or herself and confidence that the world will be a better place for it. It is the feeling of at-one-ment with the world ( and I could have added with God.).

It reminds me of the admonition of theologian Thomas Merton in The Seven Storey Mountain. ‘(A)ll men who live only according to their five senses, and seek nothing beyond the gratification of their natural appetites for pleasure and reputation and power (the temptations of the wealthy), cut themselves off from that charity which is the principle of all spiritual vitality and happiness because it alone saves us from the barren wilderness of our own abominable selfishness.’

People like the [widow] act in concert with their hearts, hearts given in service to others. Their actions are not sacrifices in their own eyes; they are simply living out their own destinies, their intrinsic selves. In the view of James Hillman in The Soul’s Code, it ‘is about calling, about fate, about character, about innate image. Together they make up the ‘acorn theory,’ which holds that each person bears a uniqueness that asks to be lived and that is already present before it can be lived.'”

God’s spirit of generosity is already within each of us, waiting to be called forth. He wants us to have the fullness of life, to live abundantly. Generosity is a response to God’s magnanimous love. When we love another — our spouse or partner or child or grandchild — the pouring out of ourselves is an expression of our generosity; it isn’t a sacrifice. We want to share all we have. That’s what this widow was doing — contributing her whole livelihood, her whole being. She was the model of discipleship that Jesus used as example. As Mark Anderson in St. Mark writes, “Discipleship involves absolute surrender to and trust in the will of God.” That’s how the widow loved God — absolutely surrendering herself to and trusting in God.

That is the kind of disciple that Jesus is calling me to be.



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