In St Mark’s Gospel Jesus takes his disciples aside and shows them the contrast between the well-to-do scribes – the religious elite of the day – and the poor widow. The first group were throwing substantial amounts of money into the treasury. A parallel for today might be the privileged one per cent of our own society which has amassed a huge fortune in comparison with the rest of the people. In contrast to the wealthy the widow just put two small coins in: the equivalent of a penny. Yet it is she who Jesus praises for her generosity. The reason is that generosity cannot be measured by the sum of money given but by the spirit of the person who gives. The rich people, however impressive their offerings, hardly noticed any difference to their personal wealth. The poor widow, as the gospel tells us, put in all that she had. The implication of what Jesus says is that the widow had given her very own self.
“Lord teach me to be generous”. That short and simple prayer comes from St Ignatius of Loyola. But what does generosity really mean to us in our lives? Giving money to worthy causes? Being generous with our time? Making allowances for people? All those things can be signs of a generous spirit. Thankfully generosity is a value that still counts in our society. We are concerned - whether it is Children in Need or a concern for the growing gap between rich and poor in our society or the terrible situation in the Middle East – Christians and people of other faiths or none still feel compelled to try to do something to help. As a parish we try to do our bit with the support of charities, including the Women’s Refuge and The Children’s Society. Thanks be to God for that.
But what does generosity mean to God? To Jesus? In the gospel passage we get a glimpse of how the total self-giving of God in Christ becomes even possible for us. It is a high calling for the disciples of Jesus and we shall never get there on earth. But with generous hearts we incline towards it.
Part of our giving as members of the church must be for the support of the church itself. We can’t do it all by ourselves, but without our generosity we have no church. Thanks are in order for the ways in which generous support has been given to sustain the church and to help it to have a future. I mean both this church and the wider church. Our Diocese is one of the poorest and its offering to the Church of England as a whole is thirty eighth out of forty dioceses –close to the bottom of the ladder. But looking at giving in relation to personal income, we are the most generous of all the dioceses in the Church of England. Again, thanks be to God for that. But it is for each one of us to decide what, in our own terms, counts as generosity – with our money, our time, our dealings with other people. Do we measure it by an arbitrary amount or in terms of what we have left over – because in the light of the gospel passage it is the amount we keep for ourselves that is the real test of our generosity.
Our fortunes can come and go. What we are living on now might not be the same as what we shall be living on ten or twenty years hence. We need food and other basic needs. And in order to cope with the stresses of life it also helps to have enough over for a few sweeteners. But how much is enough? Our priorities matter because they make the vital difference. On the one hand we can give only out of what is left over. Or on the other we can make a commitment out of generosity and out of thankfulness for what God has given us. Every year the church timetables in a Sunday devoted to the theme of giving. It asks us prayerfully and realistically to review our situation and our priorities. They will be different for every one of us. We should never judge other people in the way the scribes did in the Temple, because we don’t know one another’s circumstances.
As I think of the reckless generosity of the widow I am reminded once again of how Jesus, having everything, made himself poor for our sake and how out of his poverty he has made us rich in so many ways. The offering of the widow showed her complete trust in the God who is self-giving, who loves us for who we are and without conditions attached. Our God is not to be placated by token offerings or by religious practices that are nothing more than lip service. God has given us his Son and if we love him in return, then our love will also be unconditional. That prayer of St Ignatius Loyola is one I need to make my own and I offer it to you as well “Lord, teach me to be generous.”