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Breath of the Spirit Reflection: Faith Calls Us To Be Generous and Generosity

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Our faith calls us to be generous, but true generosity requires faith. How else can one summon the courage to give from their need? How else can we give of food we had hoped to eat or money we had intended to use for our livelihood, as the widows in this Sunday’s Scriptures? How else indeed? The powerful stories of these faithful, courageous, and generous women challenge those of us who live in relative comfort – or even more than that – to interrogate our own level of giving. What does my generosity say about my faith? My need to grow in trust, and perhaps also in empathy for those who have so much less?

 

November 7, 2021: The Thirty-Second Sunday of Ordinary Time, Cycle B 
1Kings 17:10-16 
Psalm 146:7, 8-9, 9-10 
Hebrews 9:24-28 
Mark 12:38-44 


A reflection by Richard Young 

If you’ve ever known poverty, you know of a kind of fear that never seems to completely leave you – the fear that there won’t be enough. There are folks who grew up poor, but became, as adults, financially well-off, maybe even wealthy, and they still clip coupons, turn down the thermostat, and wear clothes until they are not only ridiculously out of style, but also so thread-bare that the Salvation Army wouldn’t touch them. Perhaps you have known such people. For some of us they were our parents or grandparents who grew up during the Great Depression and whose defenses against poverty were never let down for a moment. I grew up poor, so I personally know that fear – the fear that there won’t be enough. Those who know me well can tell you how frugal I can be. A former treasurer at my monastery, who enjoyed an occasional laugh at my expense, once told me, “Richard, you have the perfect qualifications to be treasurer: you’re cheap and honest.” We may enjoy poking fun at the cheapskates of the world, but the fact is, poverty can traumatize a person and leave that person full of irrational fear and mistrust. 

In light of this dynamic, the two poor widows in today’s readings can be seen as women of outstanding faith and true, heroic generosity.  Fears, such as those that come from living in poverty, are overcome by facing them and acting in spite of the potential consequences.  To do so requires faith – belief that God has, as priest-poet John Shea put it, “spread a net beneath this high-wire act of ours.”  To be truly generous means to give with one eye on the Almighty, to make sure we don’t fall. 
 
But talking about widows hardly has the effect on us it once had.  In a time when women seemed to have no identity without a husband, the mere mention that a lady in one’s neighborhood recently became a widow evoked strong feelings of compassion. Neighbors would think not only of how painful the grieving must be, but also about how there would be no practical and sensible man to take care of her, to help her and the children to live within the financial constraints of her new social status, to fix what breaks down, to discipline wayward sons and daughters, to be a firm, calm presence in a crisis. Those were the cultural stereotypes we held on to in the fifties and earlier, images that were reinforced by TV and the movies. We once thought of widows that way, as helpless dependents, but not so much anymore. A lady with whom I once worked was a widow, and she hardly fit that description. She was intelligent, capable, resourceful, and assertive, and she was a skillful and responsible parent to her two small children. She was truly a modern woman who knew there would be enough because of her faith in herself, if not also in God. 

This kind of woman was apparently quite rare in biblical times. Most widows had every reason to worry about not having enough. There were no social services that could ease her burden. She was a second-class human being, just for being a woman; third-class for being a widow. Add to all this the fact that for the widow in our first reading, there was a famine going on, and she had resigned herself to the idea that death was imminent, both for herself and her son. Then comes a prophet with a promise: the famine would end soon, and “the jar of flour shall not go empty nor the jug of oil run dry.” She invested in the promise by feeding the prophet, herself, and her son.  She used up all that was left and believed. That is faith. That is remarkable courage and generosity. 

The widow in the gospel also acted despite her fear of not having enough. Mark’s Jesus said she gave “all that she had to live on.” That too was an unselfish investment in God’s promise. Jesus also warns about the scribes, a first-century version of some TV evangelists and other clerics who don’t have to worry about not having enough, yet want even more, and who “like to parade around in their robes and accept marks of respect in public, front seats in the synagogues, and places of honor at banquets” and who “devour the savings of widows and recite long prayers for appearance’ sake.” Widows had to be careful, as we all do, lest their investment of charity be made in some huckster’s promise, and not in God’s. 

The Good News is that there will always be enough, if the investment is in God.  The poor seem to have no choice but to believe that. Professional fundraisers for charitable organizations will tell you that those most likely to contribute are the poor and that the wealthier the giver, the smaller the percentage of income goes to charity. Jesus must have known that.  That’s why the gospels are so full of warnings about getting too financially comfortable.  Ironically, the more secure you are, the more you seem to lack the faith to know that there will be enough. 

The words of an old song come to mind. It’s about a man dying of thirst in the desert. He comes upon a jar of water next to a pump. There is a note attached to the jar, telling him not to drink the water in the jar and that all the water he could want is in the well, but he must use the water in the jar to prime the pump. Of course, the man is afraid to use the water that way. What if there really isn’t water in the well?  He is asked to put aside his fear.  The note says, 

“You’ve got to prime the pump.   
You must have faith and believe.   
You’ve got to give of yourself before you’re ready to receive.   
Drink all the water you can hold.  Wash your hands.  Cool your feet.   
Save the bottle for all others.  Thank you kindly!   
Desert Pete.”   
 
Listen to the Kingston Trio’s version of the song here

 

Rev. Richard P. Young is a retired Catholic priest and mental health counselor. He co-chairs the Social Justice Committee of Dignity/Dayton’s Living Beatitudes Community and has worked with several Dignity chapters since the late 70s.

He once served for a term on the national board of DignityUSA and has attended all the national conventions/conferences since 1981. He is married to DignityUSA’s national secretary, Bob Butts.