“Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”Luke 21:3-4
It is easy to read the story of the poor widow’s offering as a moral lesson, and so to some degree it is. Yet, it is also much more than that. It is a description both of the very nature of God and of the nature and quality of our participation in God’s life and creation. In context it is surrounded by Jesus’ description of the miserly and constrained consciousness of the Pharisees on one side and his description of the destruction of the Temple and the signs of the end times on the other.
In the middle is this teaching that Jesus gives as he witnessed the generosity of the poor widow. Jesus is the revelation of God’s generosity to us. In Jesus, God withholds nothing from the world, despite the knowledge of our, of the world’s sinfulness and poverty.
There is perhaps no clearer attestation of the disparity between God’s thoughts and ways and ours than in the incarnational manifestation of God’s love, a love that is given “to the end” (John 13:1). As the doctrine of the Trinity teaches us, the Divine nature is constituted by the outflowing of life. And so, we enter into that life when, as the poor woman of whom Jesus speaks, we give all we have out of our poverty.
Being a child of this world, I give out of my surplus. I give what, as I appraise it, I can afford to give. This is true not only monetarily but intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. In the gospels, the Pharisees are the symbols of this at a religious level. At the end of Chapter 20 Luke has Jesus warn us about the spirit of the “teachers of the law.” Everything they do and say is intended to assert their power and superiority over others. They always know the answer; they don’t live with the struggles and doubts of ordinary people. Their maintaining of their own wealth and power imprisons them in a very small and pathetic world. They actually think that people care about their “flowing robes” and their “important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets” (Luke 20:45-6). It is one of our utmost illusions to live for what others think of us, because the truth is that for the most part they aren’t thinking about us. These teachers, however, while cultivating their own cult of virtue are “devouring widows’ houses” (Luke 20:47).
The common way that most of us fall prey to the sins of the teachers of the law is by our living, acting, and speaking in service to our false identities. These identities are built out of our own insecurities. So, the person who feels weak cultivates the persona of the bully or strong and arrogant person. The person who is intellectually insecure feigns an affected wisdom. The person who fears his or her incompetence lives a pretense of competence and control. We all tend to be ashamed of our poverty, whatever form that poverty takes in us.
This is so much in contradiction to the nature of God in Jesus. “Who, being in very nature God, / did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; / rather, he made himself nothing / by taking the very nature of a servant, / being made in human likeness” (Philippians 2:6-7). We are ashamed of our human poverty and so flee it through the creation of an idealized self, which we then inflict on the world with a manipulative and perverse power. It is our refusal of our own poverty that is the cause of violence in the world. It is the falseness we effect in that refusal and shame on which we shall be judged at the end of time.
This is why everything we build must ultimately be destroyed. Not one stone will be left upon another, and this is an affront to our ego. In any of our “good works” there is always sinfulness and imperfection. What must always, because God loves us, come crashing down in the end are our own illusions about ourselves. And then we are left with nothing but our own poverty.
This is why it is that poor widow “puts in more than all the others.” At the level of spirit, it actually is more. Jesus’ comment here is not merely metaphorical, unless we only read this from the functional and materialistic perspective. She is actually giving more to the world than one who gives so much more out of one’s surplus. As long as we can “give” while maintaining our falseness, we are not yet giving what the world needs.
While this may not seem immediately understandable, communal collaboration and discernment may, perhaps, provide a helpful exemplification of this truth. The other day I was speaking with my cousin who works for a large bureaucracy. He was voicing his frustration that what they term collaboration in his situation is that people sit around a table and each, one after the other, offers her or his opinion, which is then put on a “sticky note” and pasted on the wall. It is, thus, a collection of “ideas” offered from each person’s surplus. The “ideas” are always the same and so the result is always predictable and seldom if ever innovative or creative.
In shared spiritual appraisal or discernment, however, something very different is called for. The horizon of this type of sharing is the wisdom and will of God. It proceeds from a belief that God’s word and will is accessible to us, but only if our own “wealth” and “power” is set aside. In ordinary life we cling to our ideas, as to possessions. If we recognize the poverty of our own ideas, however, we may allow some small opening to the transcendent in us, to our capacity, as spirit, to recognize the movement of the Divine in and among us. Concretely, however, we must give of ourselves from our poverty in order to access this potency. We must dare, without shame, to be stupid. We must attempt to give verbal form to that in us which we don’t understand. We must allow what the others are giving in this honest and humble way to evoke the Divine inspirations in us. As the Psalms tell us, we are called to sing “a new song” to the Lord. Usually we just keep repeating the same old tired lyrics. The newness to which we are called is the gift of God that comes to us when we are empty enough to receive it.
My cousin raised the question of whether or not the monks and nuns of ages ago practiced such a sharing in their daily “chapter” meetings. Of course, we have no way of knowing this. Yet, I can personally attest that in the past few years I have at times been part of groups that were poor enough to experience such surprising inspirations of grace. These stood in stark contrast to the meeting for which they were a preparation in which there was little of the same openness and humility.
We can come into the world to give what we have out of our poverty, or we can keep choosing to hide our poverty in shame and so to give so much less than we could. The poor widow gives more because what she gives is honest and real. No matter how much others put in, if it is out of their surplus, they haven’t yet given anything. Yes, the money may help in some way, but what they have to give is still hidden behind their pretense of strength, wealth, and independence. The widow’s giving out of her poverty means that she has to be trusting she will be given in turn. She is the reappearance of the widow of Zarephath who makes a loaf of bread for Elijah with her last handful of flour and drops of oil. The abundance that is the love of God is the result of the constant outflowing gift of life. What we call love is the result of that continual and unimpeded flow.
In our day, at least in our Euro-American culture, we confuse love with material transaction. Even in the emotional sphere, love is transactional for us. It can be even very difficult for us to imagine our giving what we have out of our poverty. So materialistic are we, and so much does it form our consciousness, that we speak of our emotional and spiritual life as if we need to fill ourselves before we can give. It is this that Jesus’ recounting of the act of the poor widow counters. We are not to “bank” our spiritual and emotional goods so that we can give away the interest while holding on to the principle. We are to give ourselves away, out of our poverty. For, this is how we receive life in return. “It is in giving that we receive.”
An adequate religion will nerve humans to exhaust all their resources in building a better world, in overcoming human strife, in mitigating the fury of our injustice to each other, and in establishing a society in which some minimal security for all can be achieved. But in an adequate religion there will be a recognition of the fact that nothing accomplished along the horizontal line of history can eliminate the depth of life which is revealed at every point of history. Let humanity stand at any point in history, even in a society which has realized its present dreams of justice, and if one surveys the human problem profoundly one will see that every perfection which one has achieved points beyond itself to a greater perfection, and that this greater perfection throws light upon one’s sins and imperfections. One will feel in the tension between what is and what ought to be the very glory of life, and will come to know that the perfection which eludes one is not only a human possibility and impossibility, but a divine fact.Reinhold Niebuhr, Optimism, Pessimism, and Religious Faith