You may recall last Sunday’s Gospel reading was from the Sermon on the Mount. Particularly we heard the Beatitudes. The first beatitude is: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of God.”
Many scholars suggest that this is the foundation of all the beatitudes and so it is listed first. The person who is poor in spirit lives in awareness that everything about them, around them and in them is a gift from God. Their poverty is a recognition of the greatness of God and the blessings he bestows on them. Hence their poverty of spirit allows them to experience the Kingdom of God.
The readings of Sunday’s liturgy remind us of this poverty of spirit in two related ways. The first deals with the importance of sacrificial giving. The second regards the life of faith.
The Gospel passage for today’s Mass comes from the Gospel according to Mark. In this passage, St. Mark recalls Jesus watching people putting money into the treasury. He sees rich people putting in “large sums.” When a poor widow comes up she puts in two small coins “worth a few cents.” Jesus then tells the disciples: “Amen, I say to you, 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.”
The first reading comes from the First Book of Kings. Here is the story of Elijah’s visit to the widow of Zarephath. He first sees her near the entrance of the city. She is gathering sticks. He asks for some water and some bread. She tells him that she only has a “handful of flour in my jar and a little oil in my jug.”
The city was in a period of drought. She then proceeds to tell him that he expected to use the small amount of food she had left to prepare what she thought would be the last meal for her and her son. Elijah tells her, “Do not be afraid. Go and do as you propose. But first make me a little cake and bring it to me. Then you can prepare something for yourself and your son. For the Lord, the God of Israel, says, ‘The jar of flour shall not go empty, nor the jug of oil run dry, until the day when the Lord sends rain upon the earth.’”
The widow goes and does as Elijah had asked. The author then tells us “she was able to eat for a year for ‘the jar of flour did not go empty, nor the jug of oil run dry.’”
In both stories the widows know the meaning of sacrificial giving. Here they give of their need not of their surplus. Jesus says the widow giving the “two small coins” in reality gave more than the rich persons.
What does he mean by this? On the surface the rich person certainly gave more funds than the “few cents” the widow gave. The “more” of which Jesus speaks refers to the widow’s giving even from her poverty. What little, very little, wealth she had she gave away. This is sacrificial giving.
In the Elijah story, the widow only had enough food for one last meal with her son. When Elijah, the prophet, asks for hospitality, the widow responds and gives the little she has left to him.
The stories also give testimony of great faith. You may recall from the Scriptures the ordinance and command to care for the “widow and orphan and the alien.” These groups were seen as the most needy in Israel. The widow, having no husband, was reliant on the charity of others for survival. The orphan, having no parents, was dependent on the larger family and community to provide for them and to care for them. The alien had no land to raise a crop or livestock. They had no home.
In the stories mentioned above it is the widows who witness to faith. These two women who might be seen as “needy” are the ones held up by the Scriptures as someone to imitate.
Both are poor. In the Gospel account this is emphasized by Jesus’ comparison with the people of wealth who also contribute to the treasury. Yet they are rich in another way, the way of faith. The widow in the Gospel passage testifies to this by the very act of giving what little she has as an act of charity. She recognizes that all she has is a gift. So giving becomes an act of thanksgiving. She is truly “poor in spirit.”
Likewise, the widow of Zarephath. Her faith is manifest as she responds to the word of the prophet. Elijah is the messenger of God, the one who speaks for God. When she is asked to provide hospitality, even at such a great cost, she does so. She hears his word promising that the Lord will provide and she responds in trust. She is a woman of faith.
Throughout the public ministry Jesus calls his disciples to sacrificial giving and faith. He calls them to be “poor in spirit.” He himself is the epitome of the “poor in spirit.” He offers himself, laying down his life as the greatest act of faith and love. He also recognizes himself in the poor and needy and calls his disciples to do the same.
Recall the parable of the separation of the goats and the sheep (cf. Matthew 25:31-46). At the time of judgment, the Son of Man welcomes the sheep saying they are blessed: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.” When the sheep ask when this happened, the Lord says: “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”
Jesus calls us to be “poor in spirit.” Recognizing in faith that all we possess is a gift from God helps us to “give it up” or rather “give it back” to the God from whom it came. This is the call to sacrificial giving.
Blessed Teresa of Calcutta once described this in a challenge to herself; perhaps this challenge could be ours as well: “I must be willing to give whatever it takes to do good to others. This requires that I be willing to give until it hurts. Otherwise, there is no true love in me, and I bring injustice, not peace, to those around me.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Morrisville.