The story of the poor widow in today’s Gospel is often used by pastors who are trying to convince their parishioners to update a measurement of church support that dates to the Hoover presidency. The dollar bill that would have been a very generous Offertory gift in the 1930’s is now an insufficient tip at a casual restaurant. In actual fact, Jesus was not praising the woman’s generosity; rather, he was lamenting the fact that she had been convinced to act profligately.
Jesus and his contemporaries lived in a subsistence economy. For that reason, they put a very high value on maintaining a stable social system. Because of the precariousness of their economy, it was considered a serious social sin to impoverish oneself or one’s family. This is the foundational premise for the parable of the prodigal son; the prodigal sinned grievously against his family and town by squandering his family’s wealth.
The woman in today’s Gospel would have been judged just as harshly as the prodigal son; she impoverished herself needlessly by giving away “all she had, her whole livelihood.” (Mk. 12:44) In doing so, she would have made herself a burden on her neighbors or her extended family. Additionally, she would have made herself a target of ridicule and reproach. In a rather convoluted way, her precarious generosity became an illustration of the cost of being a disciple of Jesus.
In many cases, Jesus’ first followers had to give up everything they valued. They left home, family, and livelihood to follow him. In return for loyalty to him, they received condemnation and rejection from wider society. Some were put to death because of their faith in Jesus. The widow, then, is a perfect illustration of the cost of discipleship: she forfeited everything and suffered condemnation because of it.
This understanding of the story, however, creates a new dilemma. Many choices can lead to rejection and condemnation. How does one know with certainty that the rejection and condemnation one experiences are the results of discipleship rather than some other cause? After all, it is perfectly possible that rejection and condemnation might result from one’s failure to live responsibly in society.
How does one distinguish between a disciple of Jesus and someone who is merely mean-spirited? We’ve all come across people who mask their unreasonableness in the outward appearances of religiosity. How does one distinguish between following God’s will and rationalizing narcissism? We’ve all met people who make a public parade of their virtues or sufferings in order to draw attention to themselves. Again, the widow is an illustration of the true measure of discipleship.
The widow sacrificed everything and did so with no complaints. The widow didn’t expect anything in return for her generosity and did not become resentful when she was subjected to the disapproval of others. The widow did not worry about herself despite the possible privation that would result from her generosity. Her act of generosity was a description of faithful discipleship. The true disciple of Jesus gives herself or himself completely to God without counting the cost or regretting the sacrifice. The true disciple follows God’s will without worrying about the personal privations that might result.
When you walked through the church doors today, you were invited to give yourselves completely to God without counting the cost or worrying about the consequences. When you leave this church building after Mass, you have the opportunity to live without resentment over the cost of discipleship and without worrying about the depth of the sacrifice required of you. To do these things joyfully is the measure of the true disciple.
The author of the book we’re using for Adult Faith Formation this semester wrote, “the arm of God is never shortened” by any human fault or inadequacy.* Jesus’ disciples know and trust this truth. The widow knew that God’s power was not diminished by her poverty or her refusal to worry about the future. Today, Jesus invites you to the faith that makes self-sacrifice redeeming and worry powerless. Will you trust that God’s power is not taxed by your weakness, distress, or inadequacy?
* Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God (New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House, 1982), 74.