John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. He is especially interested in moral theology and the thought of John Paul II.
Lots of people have heard the expression about wanting to “put in my two cents.” Others have offered “a penny for your thoughts.” Both these idioms are inspired by today’s Gospel about the widow’s mite.
Both the First Reading and Gospel speak about unconditional trust in God. In both readings, that trust comes from a widow.
In ancient Israel, widows were among the anawim, the “poor (lit., “bowed down”) ones.” They were the vulnerable.
Widows were vulnerable because, in ancient society, a woman relied on a man for protection: first, her father; then, after marriage, her husband. A widow, therefore, was exposed.
Because they were vulnerable, the Old Testament demands special solicitude for “widows and orphans” (see, e.g., Exodus 22:22; Job 29:12; Psalm 146:9; Psalm 82:3: Jeremiah 7:6). Exploiting the widow and orphan is seen as a particular sin against Yahweh.
The First Reading (from First Kings) features a widow and her little son, preparing to die. Israel is in the midst of famine, and the woman is gathering some sticks to heat a last meal for herself and her boy, convinced they will soon die. Elijah the prophet seems pushy, asking this vulnerable woman to share her paltry measure of food and cook for him; yet, telling her to “be not afraid,” he asks her to rely on her faith and cultural tradition of sharing no matter what with a guest. She takes the risk of faith that God will provide, and He does—for a year—even as others undoubtedly experienced suffering.
The Gospel features a widow whom Jesus observes making a Temple donation. While He notes that others check the box by donating, their gifts hardily leave them exposed: the offerings might even have been substantial, but they were still “from their surplus wealth”—nobody was probably going to go hungry that night and, even if they were, they’d certainly make it for it with a hearty breakfast in the morning. The widow, however, “contributed all that she had,” risking—like the widow of Zarephath in the First Reading—her own subsistence. She relied on God whom, as today’s Psalm reminds us, “the fatherless and widow He sustains” (Psalm 146:9).
Neither woman strikes us as prudent planners. The widow of Zarephath probably gets some points for getting ready to make a last meal, but of the widow of the Temple we know nothing further. Wouldn’t we expect them to be more “responsible” in their planning, better “stewards” of their limited resources? Would we have blamed one for demurring to Elijah’s request? Should the other have not considered investing in a mutual fund or annuity today, promising Yahweh (like Wimpy in the old Popeye cartoon) to pay the dividend on Tuesday?
But they didn’t, because they were not “responsible planners.” They loved.
We look at them as good examples and honor their trust in God’s providential care. But, I suspect, we also distance ourselves from them because most of us do not face the extreme poverty or existential choices they did and we thank God “I am not like that” (see Luke 18:11).
But does God ask us today to make a similar act of trusting faith in His Providential care?
If I can put in my two cents: yes. Let me suggest how He does.
How many people today are willing to trust God when He offers us the gift of life? How many of us are willing to be open to the gift of life whenever God offers it? How many of us are willing to take the risk that God will not do us wrong if we do right by Him?
That is what the core teaching of Humanae vitae is about. It’s not about “maintaining the physical form of a sexual act” (as some of its critics contend).
Humanae vitae is first and foremost about an attitude vis-à-vis God and gift of life. It’s an attitude that: God is good and will not do me wrong for trusting Him; that God is Lord of life, life is good, and sharing another life with me is a gift from Him. It’s trust in God.
I’ll admit that these are not attitudes valued in the contemporary world. The pied piper call of planned (un)parenthood is that we need to be “responsible” and take charge, as if we were the masters of our own fate and know what will become of us. It is an attitude that considers the child not so much a “gift” as a “project,” [http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/archbishop-michel-aupetit-paris-new-pro-life-champion ] another notch on the resume of what I call a “successful life,” fit in at the “appropriate” junction (and not in too great numbers). Yes, those stories about God are nice and pretty, but in “real life” where kids might cost more than a quarter of a million bucks, you gotta be “realistic” about these things.
It’s one thing to be a naïve widow 2,000 years ago, dropping my life savings in the collection basket or giving away my hard-earned flour and oil to a prophetic mooch. But, ladies and gentlemen, this is 21st-century America! Time to grow up and “put away childish things,” like stories about trusting widows. Do you know what college today costs?
Yes, the widow can give away her two cents. But do you understand what another kid might do to my 401(k) plan? The lost value that, through the magic of compound interest, would be … a lot more than two cents!
Yes, the widow can use up her flour and oil. But what kind of standard of living are my kids going to have with another mouth to feed? The widow of Zarephath trusted God with the last meal she had for herself and her boy. Do we trust God with foregoing that extra vacation? That more tony school?
Yes, I understand that there are people who are economically challenged. But I also ask for some perspective. How many of those “challenged” somehow manage to find money for the latest gadget? Yes, Virginia, life can be lived without iPhone XS Max.
My meditation for parents and prospective parents today is to reimagine the Gospel. Jesus is sitting alongside the treasury, observing. But, instead of Temple goers dropping their offerings, we might look through the eyes of Jesus as to how we reacted to His gift of life, based on what we were willing to offer in return. Did we just give “out of our surplus,” still certain that our prudential planning kept us from undue risk? Or did we give “all we had, our whole livelihood,” convinced—as today’s Psalm puts it, that the One observing our mite is “He who keeps faith forever?” Do we “put out into the deep” in faith?
Would our response to the gift of parenthood receive the same praise from the Lord as the trusting widow? Do we care?
At least that’s my two cents on the subject. A penny for your thoughts, in the comments below...