There is something that may strike us as quite peculiar in this Gospel story. Why would someone so poor put all she had to live on to support something which was already endowed by the wealthy and powerful? Why would she do it? This was not a tax: the woman was not going to be punished for not “paying up.” And yet of her own accord the widow puts what is for her an extraordinary sum of money into the treasury. Surely, one would think, she would have considered herself exempt. The money she put in was probably even that which she had gained from begging. Why then give it away to the Temple Treasury?
Of course, the question extends, then, from not only why the woman should be so self-sacrificing, but why indeed should we ourselves be self-sacrificing at all? Self-sacrifice comes out of the awareness of the importance of others in our life. It comes out of the awareness that I am connected to others, that others are dependent on me, and that I am, in turn, dependent on them. The more connected I am to someone, the more self-sacrificing I will be prepared to be.
Underscoring this acknowledgement, is the recognition that it is our sense of community with each other that in no small ways shapes our sense of morality. Where community breaks down so does morality. We act more responsibly towards those we know and with whom we experience connection. It is our communal life – in family or society or Church – that teaches us to take account of each other’s rights, needs, and welfare. The greater experience of community the greater the possibility of morality. The more disconnected, the more individually we live our life, the less moral our lives becomes.
The poor widow in the gospel must have had a profound sense of belonging to a community in order to be so self-sacrificing. She must have had a deep respect for the cohesion of her society in order to give so much of herself away.
However, there is also a second consideration that emerges from this story in the gospel. The poor widow gives not from what she has, but from what she doesn’t have. There is a profound paradox in this. Life flows through us and for us when we give to someone else what we don’t have. I recall reading this somewhere for the first time and thinking there must have been a printing error. This presents as a contradiction to what we instinctively think. We easily think we heal from what we have. We give from what we have. However, unexpectedly coming across the insight for a second time, I began to wonder if it is, in fact, the opposite. Healing comes when giving to someone else what we don’t have. There is in this paradox, a gospel truth.
We may not feel as if we have much particular to offer. Nonetheless, when we step forward to offer ourselves to build up the common good, to nurture the life of the community, it can be amazing what begins to flow for us. We may not think we have very much to offer, but in offering ourselves a sense of belonging deepens and grows. In giving something we didn’t think we had in abundance, we become rich beyond our imagination.
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