Thursday, November 8, 2012

Total Loving, Total Giving

Thirty Second Ordinary Sunday Year B

Every preacher has his favourite text. Today’s gospel story may be a personal favourite for some especially when they wish to whip up the congregation for a better collection. You may be interested to note that most Catholic priests are often embarrassed to talk about money matters or make pitches to solicit funds. In this sense, all of us, both preacher and congregation share something in common. Money is the last thing preachers want to preach about, and the last thing parishioners want to hear about. The easiest way for a priest to lose his popularity is when he’s constantly on his parishioners’ backs for what’s buried deep down in their wallets. So, when an opportunity like this to preach about generous giving arises, one which comes only once in every three years, make the best of it! And nothing works better than a guilt trip using a poor old lady who’s lost her husband as the exemplar par excellence of generosity. My personal experience is that the guilt lasts only one Sunday.

The problem with such irresponsible use of Bible verses to justify one’s agenda is that people often catch on to the strategy after several attempts. The parishioners sitting in the pews, who have grown tired with this over-used tactic, may often develop their own penchant for choosing another text from the same gospel as a counter-attack. At the beginning of the gospel, Jesus warns the people: “Beware of scribes, who like to walk around in long robes”, be greeted with honour in public, have the best places reserved at dinners and who are notorious for swallowing up the possessions of poor widows. Here are respected religious leaders by day but unapologetic thieves at night. Sounds painfully familiar … Sigh. I can see parishioners gleefully looking at me as I reluctantly read those lines. Ouch! Touché!

Before we deal with the story, let’s just take a little detour to unravel the terminology used. Just in case you may be wondering why her contribution was described as a ‘mite’, most commonly understood as a microscopic parasitic pest that is usually invisible to the eye; the word is actually derived from the old English word for small copper coins. It’s found in the King James English Version of the Bible. But perhaps, this misunderstanding may also be insightful. When the volunteers who are responsible for counting the Church collection sieve through the money that’s thrown into the collection bag every Sunday, attention naturally veers toward the larger currencies rather than the common one ringgit notes. Coins often receive little attention or earn the greatest disdain – like mites they are ignored at best, and despised at worst. But Jesus does notice the widow’s gift and in fact makes her an example for the others. 

Most of us, most of the time, hear the widow’s mite story and think it means something like this: "See, it’s not how much you give that matters, it’s the spirit with which you give it that counts. Quality is much better than quantity." This justifies being cheap. But most of us miss an important point here; Jesus did not say that the widow gave all she could afford; Jesus said she gave all she had. “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” It is much easier to give out of our abundance without seriously affecting our standard of living. What Jesus points to in the widow is another thing entirely; her total commitment of everything she has, all her resources, “all she had to live on,” to the Kingdom of God.

So how should we understand Jesus’ point? The hermeneutic key to understanding today’s passage is found in last week’s passage where we heard Jesus pronounced the two-fold mandate on love, love of God and love of neighbour, as the greatest in scriptures’ sizable arsenal. The widow is cited as an exemplary model of discipleship precisely because she realises that same commandment through the giving of the two coins. There is no coincidence in the number here – two coins to match the two-fold commandment. According to traditional Catholic interpretation by the Fathers of the Church, the two coins represent the two great loves. There is no limit in the widow’s love, neither is there a limit in her giving. Total loving means total giving. Our giving, therefore, becomes irrefutable evidence of the extent of our love. Sweet words promising love are empty unless accompanied by the act of giving.

The same theme of discipleship which demands a totality rather than a partiality of commitment to the way of Christ is found throughout the gospel. We see it in the call of the first disciples who left everything to follow him. It is found in the challenge presented to the rich young man and the disciples to deny one’s self, sell every possession and to take up one’s cross to follow Christ. We see it in Christ’s elucidation of the Great Commandment to love God and neighbour. And finally, we see it in this example of the poor widow and her two ‘mites.’ But finally, all these examples of total giving or radical loving points to the primordial archetype – Christ’s self-giving on the cross for the salvation of many. 

Christ came into this world to free us from the bondage of sin, and make us capable once again of love. Love requires freedom, as a sine qua non condition. Without freedom, there is no love. And that is why someone who lives a life of sin cannot truly love. He is selfish and overly protective of his own wealth but indifferent to the needs of others. And so the challenge for total self-giving is the challenge to embrace conversion and penance, to free ourselves of the fetters of sin. Christ challenges souls to give up what is self-centred and self-oriented, and to lose oneself by giving oneself freely and without reserve to God and to others — even to the very point of death itself. This radical call to self-giving sacrifice is exactly the antitype of what the modern world cherishes. Modern man loves comfort and pleasure. He loves always having his own way- to do what he wants, how he wants, when we wants it. He treasures the visible things of the world above the treasures of heaven, which he cannot see.

Finally, at root, this story is not so much about giving and generosity as it is about trust in God. The total giving of the widow’s mite was an act of faith, faith in God to supply her needs. She trusted in God to take care of her, even if she put in everything she had, all she had to live on. For God had promised to do just that, and God is faithful to his promises. The stories about the widows in both readings and their generosity are not so much about finances as they are about the relationship of trust we are called upon to have with God.  Trusting Him with everything, our welfare, our future, and even our lives.

Today God calls us to quit hedging our bets, to stop holding back.  He calls us toward making a complete and total commitment of ourselves to Christ and the Kingdom of God. In fact, it may now appear that giving more at a Sunday collection may be easier by comparison. The Gospel for us today is that we can make that leap, that commitment, with full confidence in God’s promise to provide our every need, now and forever more. So give, not because you feel the sting of shame and guilt. When the sting subsides, the giving stops too. Give not because you wish to make an investment that promises returns. Yes, there will be returns, but not the kind that you imagine. We invest ultimately for heaven and not for the temporary pleasures and riches of this earth. But give, because you wish to go beyond a mere profession of love. Love is realised in action and especially in the act of total self-giving. The cheap have only feeble love or none at all to show. Give because you trust in God. Because you believe that in giving your all, you will receive so much more. In fact, you will receive the greatest treasures of all, eternal life and the joys of heaven!

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