I tell you truly: this poor widow has contributed more than all of them. For all of these gave their gifts out of their abundance. But this woman contributed out of her poverty everything that she had to live on.
Luke 21: 3-4
Jesus’ teaching in the parable of the Widow is best understood by the contrast in the literal meaning of the parallel phrases: abundance is literally “out of what exceeds” and poverty is “out of her lacking.” It is often pointed out that there is a “radical discontinuity between the good news of the kingdom proclaimed by Jesus the Prophet, and the messianic expectations and religious concerns of the Jewish leaders” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, pp. 31-318) Reflection on this parable, however, reminds us of the radical discontinuity between the ways of the kingdom and our own instinctual and ordinary consciousness.
Built into the very marrow of our being is the instinct for self-preservation. Our attention to others comes after we and ours are adequately provided for. While this seems indisputably true at the material level, it is also deeply true at the psychic and spiritual levels as well. Those of us who lack significant wealth are often amazed at how it can be that people who possess millions of dollars and more in assets remain driven to accumulate even more. Yet, if we attend to our own depth we can recognize how this can be the case. Whatever we have, we are acutely aware of the depth of our own poverty and lack. So much of our way of being in the world and of living out our days in our relations to others consists of our attempts to fill that lack, and then, out of what whatever surplus we attain to give some form of love and service to others. Be it at the material, the psychological or the spiritual level of our being, our taken-for-granted view is that we give out of our own fullness. As spirit, we human beings “feel” the need to be not only materially secure but also psychologically and spiritually self-sufficient.
In today’s parable and throughout the gospels, however, Jesus says that the dispositions of those who belong in the kingdom of God are quite contrary to this. The Widow contributes not out of what is excessive but out of her very lack. The truth of things is that we are always poor and lacking, no matter how much we own or how much we affect self-sufficiency. To think that we can make ourselves secure enough so that out of our abundance we can then give to others requires that we forget that it is always possible that “this very night your life will be demanded of you” (Luke 12:20). Nothing is ours and all is given to us on loan. As we approach the celebration of Thanksgiving Day in the United States, we are reminded that the gratitude that is at the heart of faith can only be sourced by a living awareness of our personal poverty and lack.
The liberation of this understanding lies in the fact that what we most have to give the world comes not from our perceived strength but rather from the gifts of God that we perceive as our limits and our lacks. When we give the “little that we have,” it is then that we have given more than those who give from their abundance. To do so, however, requires of us the courage to manifest our own poverty, to be a “little one” in the world rather than a “big shot.” It is such humility and transparency, however, that opens our heart to the abundance of God’s grace and love.
Some years ago, I discovered that listening to and speaking with others, I seemed to help them the most when I was aware that I couldn’t really understand them or know what to do for them.
At such times, I was able to offer them my lack, my incomprehension, in such a way that I could actually serve their attempts at self-understanding. On the other hand, when I felt sure that I knew what their experience was and what they needed to do, I could well find myself dominating and manipulating them. When we are present in our poverty and lack, there is room for the creative love and grace of God to flow between and among us.
This call of Jesus to be “poor in spirit” requires of us, however, a “radical discontinuity” in our ordinary consciousness that is painful. The mystical tradition speaks often of the experience of darkness and night. An aspect of that darkness is the dread that is evoked in us as we “admit” to ourselves the depth of our poverty, of our need and lack. Jesus says that real life requires of us to practice moving against our instincts for security and accumulation. When it feels to us as if we should grasp or hold is precisely the time to give and release.
The poet Louise Gluck writes of a night time visitation from her dead parents and of the existential need this visit reminds her of in the poem Visitors from Abroad.
Sometime after I had entered
that time of life
people prefer to allude to in others
but not in themselves, in the middle of the night the phone rang. It rang and rang
as though the world needed me,
though really it was the reverse
I lay in bed, trying to analyze
the ring. It has
my mother’s persistence and my father’s pained embarrassment.
When I picked it up, the line was dead.
Or was the phone working and caller dead? Or was it not the phone but the door perhaps?
My mother and father stood in the cold
on the front steps. My mother stared at me, a daughter, a fellow female.
You never think if us, she said.
We read your books when they reach heaven.
Hardly a mention of us anymore, hardly a mention of your sister. And they pointed to my dead sister, a complete stranger,
tightly wrapped in my mother’s arms.
But for us, she said, you wouldn’t exist.
And your sister–you have your sister’s soul.
After which they vanished, like Mormon missionaries.
The street was white again,
all the bushes covered with heavy snow and the trees glittering, encased with ice.
I lay in the dark, waiting for the night to end.
It seemed the longest night I had ever known, longer than the night I was born.
I write about you all the time, I said aloud. Every time I say “I,” it refers to you.
Outside the street was silent.
The receiver lay on its side among the tangled sheets; its peevish throbbing had ceased some hours before.
I left it as it was,
its long cord drifting under the furniture.
I watched the snow falling,
not so much obscuring things
as making them seem larger than they were.
Who would call in the middle of the night? Trouble calls, despair calls.
Joy is sleeping like a baby.