Sunday, 8 November 2009

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

To some preachers, the readings are a bonanza because one can develop the theme of generosity and apply it to the congregation. “Give! Give until it hurts! If it does not hurt, then you have not been generous enough”. But, is there more to this “giving till it hurts” generosity for the congregation or parishioners? Yes, and both are found in the two widows of the 1st Reading and the Gospel. There are two lessons to be learnt even though both are centred on one theme: God in whom we trust.

In biblical times, even amongst the poor, there is probably a hierarchy and widows are placed right at the bottom of the social class. In a culture which places a great emphasis on honour, widows often have no one to defend their honour. The word “widow” itself can also mean, in Hebrew, one who is silent.

Thus, we might think that the Gospel is highlighting the generosity of a voiceless widow. It is, but, Christ is not so much praising the widow as He is lamenting how she has become poorer. Her worsened position must be seen in the context of who the Scribes are and what role they play in society. The Scribes are those who know the Law. If widows are at the bottom of the social hierarchy, then the scribes must belong to the upper stratum and this is confirmed by their preoccupation with honour. From their position, they have the authority to teach. That they love themselves too much is not the problem. The problem is Christ points to them as “men who swallow the property of widows”. Why? In giving all she has, the widow has further worsened her situation. Never mind that she trusts God. Her abandonment to God is actually a condemnation of those who have allowed her to be in such a situation. Thus, Christ is lamenting that the Scribes, whose teaching must have included the sacrifice of giving generously, has effectively reduced the woman to such dire straits. What they teach has further increased the depth of the widow’s penury or poverty.

As such, the widow in the Gospel challenges us on two counts. First, you would think that we have come a long and enlightened way. But, when you read of personalities (who have to remain nameless) and their making a show of their "noble largesse", we know that the phenomenon of shameless parading is still alive. In the context of this benevolence, what is worse is that much of the wealth has been ill-gotten in the first place. But, that is not the point. What is more important is to become more aware of how our actions affect the poor. That is the challenge of the Gospel’s widow. By what we do or what we do not do, have the poor become poorer? This is the part where we begin to be more aware of what we do with what we have. Parading our “generosity” is not enough. Nowhere does Christ condemn the wealthy for being wealthy. Wealth may be God’s choicest blessing but for those who do not know how to use it, it becomes a curse.

Thus, the widow in the Gospel teaches us, that apart from generous giving and trust in God, those of us who are more blessed need to be aware of what the true nature of blessing is. The blessing of having more is never for oneself. What we do with what we have is also an act of trust in and a response to God’s providence and this allows us to take a look at the widow of the 1st Reading.

First, consider her “double” silence. She is not just a widow but a “foreign” widow with a child to support. As such, she is doubly disadvantaged. Her encounter with Elijah teaches us that no matter how disadvantaged, one can still be generous. In a way our widow in the 1st Reading is like the widow in the Gospel because objectively by giving everything she has, she has also worsened her situation—"we shall eat and die". But unlike the widow in the Gospel, the situation is made different by her subjective response. We are never impoverished if we begin to share what we have. Thus, the difference between the two widows teaches us that we may be made poor objectively but our response to an objective situation must always be subjective, that is, personal.

Whilst the widow in the Gospel is made poorer by her objective situation, the widow of Elijah by her subjective response has freed herself to receive God’s providence. This is where we are challenged in our giving. There will be a lot of times where we will not be in control. The political landscape shows that injustice abounds in the country. The environment is not cooperating with us as we experience floods in the East Coast. We are told that the economy is improving but a neighbouring country known for its corruption is now even more transparent than we are and drawing foreign direct investment. All these factors may come together to restrict our freedom or narrow the scope of our action, like the widow in the Gospel. But the widow in the 1st Reading illustrates that freedom, no matter how restricted, is never so that we cannot be generous. That generosity comes only when we believe that God will provide. Otherwise we remain always in the territory of giving from our abundance or from our surplus and not from what we need. In short, we give what we do not need. Let me stress that there is nothing to be ashamed of even though many of us are like that. It is a natural response to any situation of lack or want. The parish is like that too. I tell other parish priests not to come to our parish for their fund-raising believing that there is only this much of generosity and we cannot spare. It actually betrays a lack of trust in people and more so in God.

That is why true generosity is a gift of the Holy Spirit for it is a heroic virtue. Any preacher who sets about asking people to give until it hurts may work on the sentiments of people who are shamed into giving—like telling the congregation that the "Proddies" give 10% and by our calculation Catholics on average give less than 1%. But, in the face of God’s Providence, to be shamed into giving would be a slap in the face of God whom we can trust. We give not because we are shamed. We give because God can be trusted for He is the giver of all things good. The 2nd Reading is our confirmation. If God can give His Son who sacrificed Himself to do away with our sins, what would God not give since He has paid the price for our salvation, with no less than the blood of His Son?

Generosity is a companion of freedom. When one gives freely, the result can only be freedom on our part—a freedom that no wealth or money could ever buy. The path to this freedom is to desire this faith and generosity to trust in God. We pray for that freedom to be generous.