By Jo Wells
“Jesus looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.’” (Luke 21:1-4)
I was 18. In a gap year before university, I applied to an organization to volunteer in a developing world context and was posted to a former mission hospital in the rolling hills of Transkei, home of the Pondo people, a clan of the Xhosa tribe. That region is breathtaking in its beauty, yet heart-rending in its poverty.
In terms of language and culture and race and politics the barriers were huge, yet the joy with which my fellow volunteer Barbara and I as strangers were received and embraced was remarkable. As was the faith of the Christians, who shone like beacons and lived their lives trusting God like I’d never seen before.
I want to tell you about the most memorable day of this life-changing year. Many months in, one of the great Mamas at church invited Barbara and me to visit her at home
It was quite a long walk “in the direction of sunset,” but when we got there — “there” being a compound consisting of some maize growing and a single mud hut furnished with a plastic chair, and some rolled-up grass bedding mats — we were welcomed like royalty. Neighbors came to pay their respects, and we must have greeted over 50 friends and relatives. When it came to eat, Barbara and I were presented with a steaming plate piled high with mealie meal, a few greens, and some fried chicken. I confess it was a bit bony and tough, but it was meat, a very rare delicacy even back in the hospital where we lived. Very uncomfortably, etiquette seemed to demand that others watched while we ate – even pressing us to have seconds — despite the crowd of hungry mouths surrounding us.
It wasn’t until the walk home that Barbara and I had chance to talk about what happened, and we spent the next week processing the experience. This was not a “wealthy” compound where goats and hens strutted around. Where did our friend procure the chicken?
Only later did we learn that she had slain her one and only chicken in order to give us a feast, to offer us hospitality, to thank us for the “honor” of visiting her home.
Truly, I tell you, here is a poor widow who gave more than I have ever given. For when I give, I contribute out of my abundance; but she gave out of her poverty, all she had to live on.
Here is my experience of the widow and her two copper coins.
Now, I may harbor questions about the wisdom of my friend’s giving — her children sorely needed that chicken so much more than Barbara and I did — just as surely as the disciples might have queried why the widow gave her last pennies to the temple treasury, of all places.
Like my Xhosa friend, the widow is giving everything she has, to God, holding nothing back, in vulnerability and thanksgiving and faith. And I’m sure she had multiple reasons not to do so. Life is fragile — won’t this make it harder? Life is so unjust — why should I be thankful in circumstances of racial inequality and grinding poverty? Life is so uncertain — what if the deadly pestilence strikes my home, my family? Even so, this widow gives everything she has to God in radical, single-minded devotion. She’s clear about what is clear, what will hold, what does matter in the end — amid so much else that is unclear.
She may not be sophisticated in her giving, but she’s transparent and whole-hearted. And it’s an expression of faith.
Now, she isn’t very “Home Counties” is she?
I want to suggest she points up some of our challenges. Our financial wisdom, our complex world, our diverse investments, our confusing and confused priorities — not to mention our mortgage and our car payments and those university fees and … and … — our sheer abundance becomes disabling, which is to say, if we’re not careful, our wealth turns into our poverty, our spiritual poverty.
Let’s consider what it is about the widow’s generosity that Jesus commends. It can’t be the impact on the spreadsheet, the size of the contribution in absolute terms, because surely most other gifts were greater. Yet, Jesus says, this poor widow has put in more than all the others. Perhaps the measure of giving is not how much we give but how much we keep back, in other words, the proportion. A well-established rule from Old Testament times is the tithe, giving a tenth of our gains. But this woman is not applying any formula to calculate a designated sum; she does not assume that 90 percent is hers. She’s ascribing 100 percent to God.
So I wonder, is Jesus addressing the spirit with which she is giving — her single-minded trust, her humble simplicity, her self-effacing anonymity (though arguably Jesus has just blown that)? I’ve also noted her naivete given that she’s not asking questions about who and how the money gets spent. She gives out of a different sensibility than those who have the luxury of authority or choice at their fingertips, like the Scribes and Pharisees: She gives because at her core she lives in utter dependence on God. She’s holding nothing back.
Jesus highlights her transforming power: yes, a woman, one of the poorest, perhaps one of the oldest, one perceived to be the most “powerless” – who is in reality not only a role model but the engine of true religion, of healthy church. This passage is sometimes referred to as the widow and her mite — and that word should be spelled M-I-G-H-T.
And at this point I want to pause to say thank you. To those of you who can relate to this widow; and perhaps those of you who perhaps wouldn’t dream of thinking you do but in whom others recognize the same devotion. It is not just that our churches are propped up by such people: it is that the health of the church depends on them.
Those who give their all, often in their sunset years, or perhaps after life has served up a fair few tragedies. Who does this widow make you think of in your parish and community? Often enough it’s those who feel they’ve got nothing left who give the most, whether in terms of money or time or talent. Perhaps they’ve come to know Jesus through their loss. Or in the act of self-emptying. If anything in this description finds an echo in your life, then I’d love you to hear these thanks — not least when your giving goes unnoticed, or feels taken for granted. Jesus notices: every little penny. And especially the last penny, when you reach the very end of all you’ve ever saved up.
And then I want to end with a challenge: what might Jesus be saying today through this poor widow? It seems to me he’s asking each of us to review not just how much do I give, but how much am I keeping back? He’s urging that for all of us who seek to live by faith, to reconsider how we might live in greater dependence on God. How can I give God my all? And if you ever struggle with making faith more concrete, I suspect he might urge you to focus on the matter of money.
I know it’s not very British to talk about money. I find it difficult even preaching to a camera, let alone when there’s eye contact. But this widow demonstrates that giving is not just a transaction on a balance sheet No, our financial giving is about the giver, not just about the gift. It’s the most tangible signal of faithful discipleship, of a pure heart, of total following. It’s gets to the core of our being. What or who do we serve? What matters?
And what do we fear? Do we suspect Jesus of a scam? Of luring us into poverty and destitution? When in truth he is offering a whole new world of abundance, of life at its richest and best.
My experience in South Africa was life-changing. Crudely, I found myself, in my riches, jealous of those Xhosa people in their poverty — because they had a joy in life and a simplicity of living that I longed for. It was the jolt that my spiritual life needed, that turned some priorities upside-down.
How I would love to re-find that Xhosa mama whose life reshaped my life with a richer glimpse of abundance. Alas, but she will never know the impact of her giving. It’s the same for the widow that Jesus observed. And yet her actions – her whole-hearted whole-person whole-life giving — reveals to us the whole-hearted whole-person whole-life giving of the Savior she follows. The Savior who walks in the direction of the sunset to offer everything for us. And then returns again and again to find us, to eat with us, to transform our living and our giving … until, pray God, we may become the sort of person through whom others may glimpse the beauty, the integrity, the generosity of God. Who gives everything for each of us and all of us.
The Rt. Rev. Jo Wells is Bishop of Dorking in the Church of England.