Friday, November 16, 2012

Never too late to give it all away


A man died suddenly and found himself in front of the Pearly Gates greeted by St. Peter.  “Welcome,” he said. “I just have to take a look in the Book of Life here to see if you can get into heaven.”  St. Peter looked through the book but kept shaking his head discouragingly.  “It doesn’t look too good, my friend.  Why, you’ve never done anything for anyone but yourself.  You’ve been greedy, selfish, power hungry, concerned only about your own well-being.  I’m not sure we can let you in.”  The man, now worried, said, “But, St. Peter, how about the time that I came across that woman who was being harassed by a group of bikers?  I grabbed a baseball bat, went right up to them and said, ‘Leave the woman alone or you’ll have to deal with me.’”  St. Peter looked at the book again and said, “That’s impressive. When did that happen?”  The man said, “About three minutes ago.” 

It’s never too late to give all that we have.   We heard in our Gospel passage today, “She, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.”  Today’s Gospel sets two pictures side-by-side for us.  It is hard to imagine two pictures that could be so different from one another.  The first picture shows us the scribes with their long robes, the many honors they receive, and their great skill at praying. Right behind them, rich people are making large offerings to the Temple.

The second picture in our passage is of a woman who makes an offering too. But her offering is so small that the two coins she drops in the offering plate would be worth mere pennies. And because it is easy to overlook a penny lying in the street, it could be easy for the people in the Temple – as it could be easy for us – to overlook this widow if Jesus hadn’t drawn our attention to her.

We all know that every parish that has ever struggled to meet the budget would be glad to have the sort of people in the first picture contribute to the mission and ministry of the Church.  Just think, when a parish sets a strategy to raise money for a new building or something equally grand, the first step is usually to focus on the respected and the rich in the parish, people who could have a real impact on the budget and help sustain the ministry; the so-called big givers.  Compared to five-figure gifts, six-figure gifts or more, what can a penny do?

But Jesus focuses our attention on the widow and her coins because in her, Jesus must see something of His own life.  At the end of the parable we hear Jesus say, “She, from her poverty, has contributed all that she had, her whole livelihood.”  Or as other translations put it more bluntly and plainly, “She has given her whole life.” And that is where Jesus sees a reflection of Himself in this woman’s gift.

She gave everything she had; even just those meager coins; and in turn she was blessed by the Lord. Perhaps gazing upon this woman, Jesus thought of another widow who was blessed: His own mother Mary.  Maybe Jesus saw this woman at the temple that day and thought of His own mother - what she sacrificed, what she had, what she lost. She may very well have had to struggle to make ends meet. Jesus saw that. He knew that. He knew the value of those two small coins. He understood where the widow at the temple was coming from because He'd lived it Himself.  And He understood what that widow at the temple was really doing – giving all that she had to her God.  She didn't hold back. She let go. She didn't take. She gave.  St. Francis names this eloquently when he said, “Hold back nothing of yourself for yourself, so that He who gave Himself completely to you, may receive you completely.”

In Mark’s Gospel, this story finds itself chronologically just before the events of Holy Week; just days before Jesus will give His whole life on the cross. Jesus turns our attention to the woman not because she shows us how to run a giving campaign.  Rather, when she opens up her hand and the two coins slip out, she too has given away her life. In the same way, on the cross, Jesus opens up His own hands and life slips from them as well.  Her giving is total just as, on the cross, Jesus will completely give of Himself.

You see, in this woman and in our Lord we see that the Kingdom of God is found not where people hold on tight to their riches or when they demand respect.  The Kingdom is found not in holding on to what we have, but in letting go.  As Jesus says repeatedly, “Those who want to save their life will lose it. And those who lose their life for my sake and the gospel will find it.”

This is a lesson we all need to hear. We may suffer terrible losses that rob us of those we love, like the widow. We may grieve, and we may mourn, we may face every kind of struggle, challenge and strife in life and we may ask ourselves “Why?”  But there is only one way through loss – the way of love. The way through our challenges is by opening our hearts; giving ourselves; holding nothing back; surrendering everything to the Lord.

In her giving, this widow gives us a glimpse of our Lord Jesus. She gave her very life. So does He. St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians gives us even more insight into this.  He writes, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God something to be grasped, but He emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant,” and He died on the cross.

This widow gives us a glimpse of our life in Christ – hands open, giving away life, in turn to gain it eternally. We too are called today to find what she has found, that all we have comes from God and should be returned to God.  Only then will we have life to the full. We too are called to open our hands and release whatever we are grasping; whatever we are holding; to give all that we are and all that we have to Christ.  Only then can we gain the Kingdom He has promised.

Lord, take my life and form it; take my mind and transform it; take my will and conform it; to Yours, O Lord.

May the Lord give you peace.

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