Very few of us give until it hurts. Actually, for some people, it hurts just to give. Then when we do give, we often expect a reciprocal gift in return; or we claim a tax deduction for our trouble; or a plaque it set up in remembrance of our generosity, or, if we have given a large sum of money, we might even have a building named after us. We do not always give unselfishly, as did the two women we read about today.
It is significant that these two women were widows. This does not simply mean that their husbands had died. It means that, with no male patron, they had no place in the patriarchal structure of society. There was no one to ensure their rights and provide for their welfare. Most widows did not return to the homes of their fathers, nor did they always find refuge with their brothers. The first widow was still caring for her son, and so there was no assistance from him. No family members are mentioned in the gospel account. Widows with no family support constituted one of the most vulnerable groups in that patriarchal society. Yet these are the ones who gave until it hurt.
The desperate plight of the first widow is drawn with bold strokes. As a widow, she not only lives on the margins of society, but she is also destitute and on the brink of starvation. To make matters worse, she has a child who is in the same straits. It is to this woman that the prophet turns. At first, she hesitates, but when he promises that God will provide for her and her son, she acquiesces to his request. She places her trust in the words of the prophet, and they are fulfilled. The woman in the gospel reading did not know that she was being observed. Unlike some in the crowd who make a show of their temple offering, she chose to be inconspicuous. Her offering was meager compared to others, but it had great significance. She gave out of generosity, not out of any abundance. Both of these women already hurt, and yet they gave more.
The lessons in these stories are obvious. The first is a clear willingness to give, regardless of how small the gift might be. The giving depicted here springs from generosity of heart, not simply financial advantage. A second lesson is religious devotion. The widow of Zarephath was a woman of faith. She trusted in the words of the prophet. The woman in the gospel who came to the temple was also a woman of faith. She sought to do her part in temple support. The third lesson is care of others. Despite her own wretched situation, the first woman cared for not only her son who depended upon her but also the prophet for whom she had no personal responsibility. In the second instance, some of the temple donations went for the support of temple personnel. These women show that in genuine giving you do not always have the opportunity to decide how your money will be used. One simply gives where there is need.
There are many ways that we can all ‘give until it hurts.’ Monetary giving is only one of them. We can first give our care and interest. This is not as easy as it sounds, particularly in societies that value personal advancement and satisfaction above all else, that dismisses the concerns of others as unimportant or boring compared to one’s own, that promotes suspicion of religious or ethnic difference, that tolerates violence and war. Despite the obstacles we might encounter, we can share our talents with others in our families, our neighborhoods, and our parish churches. We can give our time and our energy in schools, in hospitals, and in soup kitchens. Sometimes it is much easier to give money than to give ourselves in ways such as these.
However, there are many people in our world who are generous as these widows were. Like the woman from Zarephath, they are committed to the well being of their children. Many parents willingly sacrifice their own interests so that their children have what they need and some of what they want. There are people who work long hours in healthcare facilities, making sure that the needs of patients and residents are being met. Public servants such as police and firefighters place themselves at risk in order to ensure our safety. We find notable unselfishness in those who serve in the military. Those who minister in the church often do so at great financial expense and sometimes with little hope of appreciation from those whom they serve.
The ultimate example of unselfish giving is Jesus who is characterized in today’s second reading as the perfect victim offered to God for our sakes. He gave until he had no more to give. He sacrificed his own interests for our good; he devoted himself to our healing; he gave his life that we might live, and he did all this with little hope of appreciation.