Back in college, I remember once having $20 to my name and was invited by a friend to go to Detroit for the weekend. I said sure. Nowadays, I don’t think $20 would cover the cost of gas. Yes, things cost less back then, but $20 still wasn’t a lot of money. Back then, I considered myself quite poor. Of course, not poor enough to not go out of town for the weekend! (Or maybe I was being a little reckless too.) And of course, I’m sure my grandparents would absolutely not have considered me to be poor – after all, I was in college – something they never were able to do; it wasn’t even a consideration for them back then – and I had my own car. So my “poverty”, relatively speaking, was not all that poor.
Especially compared to the widows in our first reading and our Gospel today. Back in the ancient world, being a widow was truly a precarious state of life to be in. They had almost no options for making an income. There were no social safety nets: no social security, no 401k accounts, etc. If they did not have money left to them by their husbands and did not have children to care for them, they truly lived at the mercy of society. And clearly the two widows from our readings are not well-off. The widow from the first reading from the first book of Kings has to care for her son, who is probably too young to earn a living himself, and the two of them are near starvation: this was a time of famine and probably most people were in dire straits, and even more so people like widows who already lived on the margins of society. As she tells the prophet Elijah, she is basically preparing the last of their food and expects to starve to death after they have eaten it, since there is nothing left.
And yet Elijah asks her to first make some food for himself! He is asking her to make a tremendous act of trust, not in him, but in God – that if she provides for him, one of the Lord’s prophets, God will take care of her and her son. How would you react in this situation? I might be a little distrustful – a strange man shows up and asks her to basically give him her last bit of food and that if she does so, somehow she will not go hungry when everyone else is also going hungry. And yet she listens to Elijah; she puts her trust in the Lord and feeds him, and as we heard, “She was able to eat for a year, and [Elijah] and her son as well; the jar of flour did not go empty, nor the jug of oil run dry.”
And then we have the example given by the poor widow from today’s Gospel. Jesus observes her putting two small coins into the “treasury” – as a faithful Jew, she was giving to the Temple in Jerusalem. The Gospel tells us that the two coins were worth just a few cents – almost nothing, especially compared to the much larger sums that wealthier people were able to give. But Jesus commends this poor widow; he holds her up as an example, not the wealthy people who were able to give much more, because, as he explains, “They have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.” The few cents the widow, while having hardly any material value, were nevertheless essentially all she had. So giving this little bit involved a much greater act of trust in the Lord.
This of course makes sense – let’s say a person with a net worth of 100 million dollars decided to give $10 million to St. Luke’s and in one fell swoop wiped out all our debt. This is a huge gift and would do much good. It’s 10% – that’s what the biblical tithe calls for – giving 10% of one’s salary. This is indeed very generous. But in terms of making an act of trust in God, well, that person still has $90,000,000 to live off, so, no problem. I don’t think that would take a whole lot of trust. Especially not compared to a person who has no money, or even worse, who owes lots of money and has no definite prospects for making money, and yet comes to church and puts a dollar in the basket. The extreme material poverty of the widow in today’s Gospel is much less common in our country today because our society is very different now. We might not always feel this way, but we are on the whole a very wealthy nation, both compared with many other countries today and especially compared to all the generations that have come before us.
However, while society has changed and we may not find ourselves in such dire situations as the widows from our readings, there are still times when we have to make acts of trust in the Lord. And sometimes we will be called to make tremendous acts of trust in the Lord. I am sure there are people here who have experienced or are experiencing extremely difficult situations in life – perhaps a serious illness, a personal tragedy, bankruptcy, an accident, maybe a violent and abusive relationship. Unexpected things still happen, as much as we try to eliminate them. Look at how Covid – historically speaking, a very minor pandemic – has essentially brought our modern, highly technologically advanced world to its knees and disrupted so many aspects of life – and continues to do so.
Yes, in every day and age we are called to put our trust in God. That means trusting that God will provide for us, that He knows what is truly best for us. It might be easy to do this when everything is going well – although what often happens when things are going well is that we (collectively-speaking, society as a whole) tend to forget our need for God and become spiritually complacent. The challenge comes when things are not going well – when we experience the unexpected disruptions or tragedies or uncertainties of life. A common response is to blame God for our troubles, to think He is no longer there, that He no longer cares. In those moments, we are tempted to hopelessness. However, it is precisely in those difficult times that God is calling us instead to renew our hope and put our trust in Him.
And trust in God must be more than a feeling. If you are able to summon up that feeling of hope in Him, that’s wonderful. But even if we’re unable to do that, we can still put it into practice. And one of these ways we do so is by tithing. The biblical mandate for tithing as I mentioned before is 10% of one’s income. The Jews understood that they should give of their “first fruits” to the Lord, not just for the good that giving it would do for others, but primarily because doing so was an act of trust in God: namely, if I give you my first fruits, Lord, I trust that you will provide for my needs. So, tithing or almsgiving as it is also called, is a spiritual act which Jesus includes with prayer and fasting as necessary for all his followers to practice.
And for it to be a true act of trust, almsgiving ought to be consistent. We should prayerfully discern and commit to giving the Lord a certain percentage of our income, regardless of our circumstances. Not, I’ll see what I can do after paying all my bills, what is left over.
And I think the same goes for prayer: we ought to commit a certain amount of time to the Lord each day, a certain minimum amount of time if you will – and put that first, maybe even literally first in the day. No matter what is going on in our day, no matter how busy we are, we give the Lord that time as an act of trust that He will give us the time we need that day to do what needs to be done that day, and everything else can wait.
It’s easy to formulate excuses and to rationalize not trusting in God. But that’s not the example of our widows from today’s readings, who completely trusted in God. If we’re not at that point in our lives, and probably most of us are not, then let us ask the Lord to increase our trust. Whose life is free of all anxieties and worries? Probably multiple times each day we experience moments of worry. When that happens, it means we need to make another act of trust in God. It can be as simple as saying, “Jesus, I trust in you.” The Lord alone is worthy of all our trust. He loves us, and will provide for us.