Giving From Your Poverty

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A few weeks ago, in a reflection discussing temporal vs. spiritual goods, I made the point that those who have the least are often the most generous.  The example I used was that of a CEO who donates 1% of his income to charity compared to a homeless man who only has two dollars giving one dollar — half of his wealth — to a friend so each can buy a sandwich.  The rich CEO may have given a higher dollar amount, but the poor man has made a much greater sacrifice by his gift.

Like most of the insightful points I make, this one is not my own!  Jesus was the first to make this point, in today’s gospel (Mk 12:38-44).  He contrasts the rich people putting a lot of money into the treasury with the poor widow who only gives a few coins. Our Lord says, “this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.”

It is easy to see that the poor man who gives away half of all he has gives a higher percentage of his wealth than the person with $100 million who gives $1 million away (50% vs. 1%).  But Jesus’ point is not just about percentages.  It’s about giving from your surplus vs. giving from your poverty.

If I asked how much the $1 million gift cost the multi-millionaire, the obvious answer is “$1 million.”  But that is not the correct answer.  The correct answer is “nothing.”  Because the multi-millionaire did not need that $1 million.  He is not hurt by the loss of it and so to give it away costs him nothing.  He gives from his surplus.

By contrast, how much did the $1 gift cost the poor man?  That $1 represents a sandwich off of the dollar menu.  It represents his next meal.  Food in his belly.  To give it away means he has to accept the very real possibility of going hungry.  So what does that $1 gift cost him?  It costs him dearly because he gives from his poverty.  That’s what makes his gift an act of sacrifice.  That’s what makes his gift an act of love.

This is the model of giving that the scriptures hold up before us.  In our first reading (1 Kgs 17:10-6), another poor widow gives the prophet Elijah bread that, practically speaking, she could not afford to give.  But because she made the sacrifice, God rewarded her and she and her son were able to eat for a year.  The people of Israel were expected to tithe 10% of their income and produce to God.  The 10% was to come from their first fruits, not what they had left over at the end of the year.  In other words, they were commanded not to give from their surplus.  They were to offer their first and best to God.  These lessons are there to teach us how to give as God gives, which is totally and completely, even when it comes at great personal cost.

Our second reading (Heb 9:24-28) mentions the priest of ancient Israel sacrificing “blood that is not his own,”  in reference to the animal sacrifices intended as atonement for sin.  This is contrasted with the sacrifice offered by Christ, who offers His own life’s blood.  This is the ultimate example of giving from your poverty, for Christ’s gift cost Him dearly.  Jesus gives from His poverty because He loves without counting the cost.  He loves fully and so He gives fully.

This is how Jesus wants us to give, because this is how Jesus wants us to love.  The poor widow contributed more to the treasury than any other because her gift was more than monetary.  She gave her love.  If we only give to others when it costs us nothing — if we only give from our surplus — we do not truly love them.  Love demands that we give even from our poverty, even when it costs us dearly.  Love requires sacrifice.  Likewise when we give to God — whether that be treasure, time or talent — we must give from our poverty.  If we truly love Him we cannot hold anything back.  Like Christ, we must offer God our very lives.

How much of yourself to you offer freely to others?  How much of yourself do you offer freely to God?  And what of yourself are you holding back?  Let us follow the example of the poor widow, and give from our poverty.  Let us follow the example of Christ and give ourselves in love.