Preaching is always an intimidating task, but seldom more than on a day like today when we hear Jesus criticizing those “who like to walk around in long robes.” For a monk, that strikes pretty close to home.
That being said, I truly believe that today’s gospel lesson is about something more substantive than the wearing of robes. But it does begin there. Jesus criticizes the ‘scribes,’ important religious leaders of his day, for “liking to walk around” in long robes, for enjoying the respect they received when greeted in the marketplaces, and for relishing the privilege of having the best seats in the synagogue and the places of honor at banquets. For them, Jesus suggests, it’s all about being seen, honored and admired by ‘ordinary folk.’ They delight in this kind of attention.
This, of course, is exactly what Jesus has already warned us about in the Sermon on the Mount. “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them;” he cautions, “for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. Whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others.” (Mt 6:1-2a) Did you catch those two important phrases: “in order to be seen by them,” and “so that they may be praised by others”? Jesus expects that we will share what we have and give generously to the work of God in the world, but he asks us to consider why and how we offer alms or do good deeds. Whenever we posture and pose in order to impress others with our holiness or our goodness or our generosity and selflessness, whenever we actively court their flattery and praise, we sacrifice the good favor of our Father in heaven for the cheap and fickle praise of human beings.
But the criticism that Jesus speaks here goes beyond “showing off” in order to be praised by others. These religious leaders were guilty of a second fault: namely, that they used their power and influence to take advantage of the poor and the vulnerable. We recognize this temptation, don’t we. How easy it is for people in power, even religious leaders, to take advantage of the weak and powerless who put their trust in them, to manipulate them and to use them for their own benefit and gain. “They devour widows’ houses,” Jesus says, and still seek praise and recognition for their long prayers. They are a walking contradiction. Their pretentious acts of devotion disguise their corrupted hearts.
As if to provide a concrete example of the hypocrisy he has been criticizing, Jesus draws the attention of his disciples to the people putting money into the Temple’s treasury. He notices first the “rich people” who can afford to “put in large sums.” They empty their bags of money into the Temple coffers – their brass, gold and silver coins clang noisily into the collection plates. Their sizable contributions and the jangling of their many coins are meant to draw attention to themselves and to their obvious generosity.
Giving alms is really an act of worship, and yet these privileged folk have turned that act of worship into a way to gain attention and garner praise.
What a contrast to the poor widow who approaches meekly to slip in her two coins, worth only a penny. She does not expect to be admired or honored for her gift; she gives it only to express her love and trust in God. Capturing the attention of others or seeking their acclaim are the farthest things from her mind. No one is going to be impressed by a penny’s worth of small coins. But Jesus commends her and issues a startling judgment: “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more that all those who contributed to the treasury.”
Wait… what did he say? More than all the rest? Surely not. Their contributions easily outweigh hers, but the dollar amount is not what Jesus is comparing here. She has put in more because she has given everything she had, whereas the rich have contributed only out of their abundance. She has given a costly gift, and we can only imagine what her generosity has cost her – perhaps it’s money to pay her rent or to buy her food or to support her family; money that could have eased, even slightly, her daily burdens. The rich have given money they could easily afford to give – they’ve offered their loose change; it hasn’t cost them much at all because they gave “out of their abundance.” They won’t miss these coins; there’s plenty more where that came from. They certainly won’t have to do without the things they want and need.
What’s the message for us? Does Jesus expect or ask us to “put in everything we have, all that we have to live on” in imitation of this poor widow? It may be that he is asking that of some of us; think of St Francis, or Mahatma Gandhi, or Mother Teresa of Calcutta, each of whom were moved to embrace a radical religious poverty as their way of offering their lives to God. But I don’t think that’s the point here for most of us. If every one of us gave everything we had to the Church or to the poor, we’d need other people to take care of us. What’s more, such extreme generosity would leave us unable to care for one another. Few of us are called to actual material poverty; instead we are called to be wise stewards of what we’ve been given, and to be generous in sharing it with those who suffer life’s hardships.
Jesus may not ask us to “put in everything we have,” but that doesn’t let us off the hook. The story still confronts us with a challenge: it requires us to ask of ourselves, “What have I offered to God, and has that gift cost me anything?” Have I felt the pinch of making an offering that requires a sacrifice on my part — or have I simply offered my “loose change,” in a way that has never really cost me much at all?
The much-beloved saint, Mother Teresa, was fond of putting this challenge to the people who flocked to her. “This is the meaning of true love,” she often said, “to give until it hurts.” “A sacrifice to be real must cost, must hurt and must empty ourselves,” she would say.
So ask yourself this: “Have I ever given a gift to God or to someone in need that involved sacrifice, that actually cost me something precious or valuable, or that pained me in some way?” Perhaps I gave someone time and attention on a day when I had little time to give. Perhaps I shared my expertise with a group who could not afford to compensate me. Perhaps I allowed myself to be inconvenienced by a needy neighbor. Perhaps I lent money to someone who I knew was never going to repay the loan. Perhaps I made an anonymous gift, sacrificing the recognition and gratitude I might have received.
These are the gifts that matter, Mother Teresa would say, because they cost us something. They are valuable because they shape and form us in the image of Christ, who gave himself so very generously for our sake, knowing we could never begin to repay him for his sacrifice.
The lesson here is two-fold, I think. It concerns what we give (do we give to the extent that it costs us something?) and it concerns how and why we give (namely, not in a way that draws attention to ourselves or leads others to praise us for our generosity).
As in all things, Jesus is our model. He has given us everything he had, even his own life. There is no higher or more valuable gift than this: to lay down one’s life for another. And he has given it purely and freely. In him there is no clamoring for attention, no seeking after human praise. He does not posture or seek to impress. He comes as a servant, loving and gentle, and embraces a way of humble service, giving himself wholeheartedly for the world that God so loves. His only desire is to carry out the purposes of the One he calls “Father.”
How, then, shall we live? Without pomp or pretense; without preening and posturing; without drawing attention to ourselves, or seeking to win the admiration and praise of others. Rather, we are to live as this poor widow lived, and as Jesus himself lived – generously, humbly, and selflessly – offering all that we have and all that we are to God, and asking that we may be wise, humble and generous stewards of all that we have received from God’s most gracious hand. It will help to keep this precept always before us: “from everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.” (Lk 12:48) “Freely you have received,” Jesus reminded his followers, “freely give.” (Mt 10:8)
Please support the Brothers work.
The brothers of SSJE rely on the inspired kindness of friends to sustain our life and our work. We are grateful for the prayers and support provided to us.