This week the American bishops will be gathering for their annual meeting and at the top of agenda will be the abuse crisis. Let’s pray that they will have the wisdom and the courage to do the right thing, for the healing of those who suffered abuse at the hands of the clergy, and that there will be an end to this abuse and to the cover-ups. It seems to me that our Sunday readings recently have been very much directed in one sense towards bishops and priests, and that this is no coincidence. This Sunday’s Gospel is no exception: Jesus gives a warning to the scribes, the religious leaders of his day, who loved the seats of honor and places of honor they were given because of their status as religious leaders. Also, to support a scribe financially was considered a very good thing to do, and it sounds like they took advantage of this and lived lavishly, fleecing the faithful and squandering their money. Jesus specifically mentions how they took advantage of the generosity of widows, who were among the most vulnerable in the society of his time. The clergy are religious leaders, and it’s clear that we have a great responsibility to the people we serve and will be held to a higher standard by the Lord. And certainly one of the dangers that the clergy face is letting our status as religious leaders go to our heads. And as clergy we also have a great responsibility to use wisely the resources that we are called to manage and not for personal gain.
In contrast to the scribes, Jesus points out a poor widow as an example for us to follow. To me it is one of the most touching scenes in the Gospels. The treasury was the place within the precincts of the temple in Jerusalem where faithful Jews would make donations of money. Apparently, it consisted of thirteen trumpet-shaped receptacles into which the money would go. Back then, all currency was coins – there was no paper money – so those who put in a lot of money would hear the satisfying chink of coins landing inside the container. In the midst of the people coming and going, depositing their coins into the treasury, one can imagine a poor, elderly woman shuffling up and dropping in her two small coins, which probably barely made a sound. Unbeknownst to her, her simple act of charity, motivated by her devout faith, was observed by Jesus, who pointed it out to his disciples and held it up as an example for them to follow.
The wealthy people who were making donations to the temple treasury were doing a good thing. But there’s the implication that at least some of it was motivated not so much by their faith but the desire to be noticed and admired for the good they were doing. How often do we do things, even good things, out of the desire that people will notice what we’re doing and will think better of us for doing it? It’s important to look at the intentions that motivate our actions. Being human, of course, it is hard for us to have completely pure intentions in everything we do; even when we genuinely desire to do good, a little bit of that self-love and desire for attention might creep in. That of course should not stop us from doing good. But in our social media-driven, attention-seeking age, it seems that so much is done so that others so that others will see it and admire us for it.
Going back to the widow who put the small coins into the treasury: perhaps she did it completely unselfconciously, or perhaps she felt a little ashamed or embarrassed for putting in so little compared to the rich people. Either way, the intention in her heart was pure: she did it because her faith motivated her to do it and because it was the right thing to do. And she did it knowing that this was all she had. In putting in these two small coins, worth hardly anything in the eyes of the world, but everything that she had, she was making a huge act of trust in God: that he would somehow provide for her.
This is what tithing is all about. Tithing of course is giving a certain percentage of everything we earn to God by donating it to the Church, to charity, to someone in need. The Scriptural tradition is 10%. And it’s important that the percentage be consistent, that it be a commitment to give a certain percentage regardless of how financially comfortable one feels. And then, the tithe should be given before any other expenses are taken into account. So for example, let’s so you make a nice income of $1000 a week and you are following the scriptural mandate of tithing 10%. Automatically, right off the top, you give 10% or $100 to the Lord – by donating it to the Church, to a charity, or to someone in need. Then, you take the remaining 90% and use it to pay for your and your families’ needs, to put it into savings, for taxes, and so on. By tithing first, you are making an act of trust in God. It’s like saying, “Lord, I’m giving you this before anything else because I know that you will take care of me. I might not know how, but I trust that you will do it.” Of course God can do it. After all, everything belongs to him. He can dispose of everything as he chooses.
So this Gospel is a little challenge to everyone to make that act of trust in the Lord and commit to tithing. I can promise you that you will not end up destitute and hungry; God will take care of you. God will take care of your family. Be like the widow and trust in God’s providence. Sometimes people grumble because it seems like the Church is always asking for money; it seems like the emphasis is always on money. I am aware of this and try to be sensitive to it. We have a responsibility to be good stewards of the resources that the faithful donate to the Church. But the reality is, the Church will always be in need of money to serve others, to pay for and maintain church buildings, to educate the faithful, especially young people, and so on. It would be great if these things could be done for free but we all know that’s not the case. The Church will always have to go begging and that is a good thing, because getting too rich and too comfortable in life often leads to bad things, especially to a lack of faith. After all, when we are comfortable and can afford pretty much whatever we want, it’s easy to start to feel self-sufficient and to lose sight of the fact that we need God.
That’s right, no matter who we are, no matter how much or how little we have, we all need God. We all have to recognize that, like it or not, in a spiritual sense we are all like the poor widow of today’s Gospel. Spiritually, what do we have that we can give God? What do we have that God needs? On our own, can we become like God? This is what we are called to do. None of us can do this on our own. When we come before the Lord in prayer, what can we give him? We must recognize our spiritual poverty before the Lord; we must recognize how little we really have to give him. St. Therese of the Child Jesus, when she would begin her prayer, would say to the Lord that she was coming before him empty-handed. She, who is now a great saint, felt that she had nothing to give. Perhaps when we pray we too feel like there’s nothing there, that we have nothing to give the Lord. Perhaps the love in our heart is barely a spark, or is like a tiny flame about to be extinguished. Perhaps we feel that we have barely any faith in our heart. Whatever we have, even if it’s just two small coins, let’s surrender it to God. What matters is that we give it all to God, trusting that He will provide. He will not disappoint us.