Two of the more popular inspirational exhortations to generosity many years ago were: “Give not until it hurts, but give until it no longer hurts,” and, “Give not out of one’s surplus, but out of one’s poverty.”
These exhortations go way beyond the extra mile.
This is the spirit of the story of the widow’s mite in this Sunday’s Gospel. It is an inspiring story.
Inspiring or heroic?
In a recollection we had over 10 years ago, we used this story as a point for reflection and discussion—“Is the widow’s action inspiring and heroic, or was it simply inspiring, but not heroic?”
It was an interesting discussion. Some said she was inspiring, but would not consider her heroic, since to be heroic is to be larger than life.
Others said she was inspiring and heroic and argued that—as one of them cited the great writer Maya Angelou’s definition of a hero—a hero is someone who makes this world a better place.
Then someone in the group suggested both views were correct. Perhaps, she said, it depended on one’s definition of a hero.
This shifted the reflection and discussion to how history has shown that what was considered a heroic act now was a condemned controversy before. The Italian Jesuit Mateo Ricci, who adapted to the customs of the 16th-century Chinese Imperial court, was frowned upon then, but in modern times was hailed as the father of the inculturation of the faith. His cause for beatification was reopened and being worked on now.
You have others on the illustrious list of once-“condemned”-now-hailed heroes.
Most famous is, perhaps, Galileo. Then there is the other Jesuit, the great scholar and thinker, Pierre Tielhard de Chardin.
This recollection session years ago gave me a new insight into this Sunday’s Gospel. What did the widow and these people on the once-“condemned”-now-hailed-heroes list have in common? They “forced” paradigm shifts.
I would like to believe the widow, her “widow’s mite,” shows us also a paradigm shift. Her story challenges us not simply to face a basic truth, it also challenges us to a paradigm shift.
I invite you to reflect on this Gospel story from the perspective of openness to change— not just simple change but a paradigm shift.
The difficulty with paradigm shifts is they always begin with what seems like an anomaly. The old way of viewing things no longer works so it disturbs the equilibrium. It throws off people. The usual initial reaction to such a situation is to be defensive and to try to preserve the status quo.
The story of the widow’s mite is a brilliant strategy that does two things. One, the poor, harmless widow earns the admiration of the one who hears of this story and does not leave one defensive. Consequently, two, the widow becomes worthy of emulation.
The desire to emulate makes us look within our self. Hopefully, it is an introspection to make us look for what is good within us; to search for what it is within us that will make us give our own widow’s mite.
The story confronts us not so much with the poverty of the widow, but with our own poverty. I am all the more convinced that it is in the poverty of our woundedness and brokenness where we discover this widow’s mite. It is here where we discover our redemption.
Parker Palmer gives a brilliant insight: “…wholeness is not about perfection… wholeness does not mean perfection: It means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life. Knowing this gives me hope that human wholeness—mine, yours, ours—need not be a utopian dream, if we use devastation as a seedbed for new life.”
This is the paradigm shift. This shift prepares us for the greatest of all paradigm shifts, or putting it in the words of what seems like ages ago, this is the mother of all paradigm shifts. The story of the widow’s mite prepares us for the story of the Cross and the Resurrection; the definitive paradigm shift.
The Cross—“devastation”— makes the Resurrection—the “seedbed for new life”—possible. This makes Christ so much more inspiring. He is heroic. He makes us look within and believe in our self. He changes the game completely. When one believes life does not end in death, this changes everything. Christ himself was part of the list, the list of once-“condemned”-now-hailed heroes.