My maternal grandmother lived in her own home until she was ninety-eight years old. She would have remained self-sufficient if she hadn’t fallen when returning from a shopping trip with friends.
Fortunately, there was an assisted living facility in the same part of town where she lived; the familiar surroundings were a comfort to her. Her grandchildren visited as often as possible. Often, I would take her for a drive through town to look at familiar sights. One afternoon, upon returning to the ALF from one of our drives, she remarked about her fellow residents, “They’re so old.” She was by far the oldest person in the facility, but she felt sympathy for her aging neighbors.
I thought of my grandmother’s comment when I read the story in today’s Gospel passage. The poor widow chose freely to make a very generous donation for the care of the poor in Jerusalem. She was destitute but felt sympathy for others who suffered deprivation. She was willing to risk impoverishment to help people who were probably less deserving than herself.
There is disagreement among Scripture commentators about the meaning of Jesus’ statement that, “she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.” (Mk. 12:44) Some commentators say that Jesus was praising the woman for her heroic generosity. Other commentators say that Jesus was lamenting the fact that she impoverished herself by giving away money she needed for food.
While Scripture commentators disagree about this story, there is agreement among Catholics and Catholic clergy about the meaning of the story. Many Catholic pastors would love to see their parishioners give as generously as the poor widow did, and many Catholics think that two cents is a generous donation to their parish.
I’d like to add to the confusion about this story by suggesting another interpretation. I think that the Gospel author saw in the woman’s profligacy a reflection of God’s love for the world and an illustration of the sacrifice that Jesus made on the Cross. Paul wrote in the letter to the Romans that God demonstrated his love in Jesus who sacrificed himself for us while we were still sinners. (Rm. 5:8) The poor widow didn’t really owe anything to her fellow residents, but she gave anyway. In a similar manner, Jesus didn’t owe anything to sinners, but he gave completely of himself.
Sometimes, the poor widow is used as a model of discipleship: disciples of Jesus are expected to give themselves completely to God’s will in a way reminiscent of the way that the poor widow gave away her livelihood. My only quibble with this interpretation is that it’s rather generic; “giving away one’s life” can be understood in myriad ways. To say that the poor widow is a model of discipleship doesn’t say enough because discipleship isn’t generic.
Being a faithful disciple of Jesus isn’t simply a matter of giving until it hurts. It is, in fact, a matter of giving of oneself completely, but in one very specific way. To be a disciple of Jesus, that is, to imitate Jesus, is to give oneself completely over to the task of doing justice for the unjust.
Generic do-gooding is laudable, and it helps those who are the direct recipients of charitable acts, but it can fall short of the standard of self-sacrifice seen in Jesus’ crucifixion. Imitation of Jesus means to address injustice in the world by doing justice for the unjust – as he did on the Cross. Specifically, today, I would say that being a disciple of Jesus requires one to heal the polarizations in society by showing compassion to those who are polarizing. Discipleship requires one to be merciful toward those who seem fiercely determined to be insulting, destructive, and selfish. Imitating Jesus requires one to forgive those who think they don’t need to be forgiven.
Each person must make a binary choice between adding to the injustice in the world or healing the injustice in the world. It’s easy to add to the world’s injustice; one has only to demand that others give freely all that one thinks one deserves. Healing the world, on the other hand, requires great strength of faith; it requires that one reject retaliation and self-pity in favor of self-sacrifice. There are lots of people in the world who would like to say about themselves that they achieved more than other people achieved in life. I hope sincerely that Jesus can look at our generation and say that we gave more than all others because we gave our whole lives for the sake of the unjust.
As an 85 year old widow I read your homily with a little more scrutiny than usual! All I can say is AMEN to your conclusion that “imitating Jesus requires one to forgive those who think they don’t need to be forgiven.” Praying for them helps.