The law of the gift

Today’s readings present two widows of extraordinary generosity. The first reading tells of the widow of Zarephath, who in a time of famine was preparing for herself and her child their last meal (before they would die of hunger), when the prophet Elijah asked for food and drink. She gave their meal to him. In the gospel, Jesus commended the poor widow who put in the temple treasury two small coins, which was all she had (her whole livelihood, in fact).

We cannot but marvel at the magnanimity of both widows in giving away their all. How is this possible? Pope Benedict XVI explains this by saying that such remarkable generosity is but an expression of a profound faith in God and his Word which moved the widows to put their total trust in him.

Living in a time when there was no social service network or welfare system, the widows and the orphans were society’s poorest and most vulnerable sector. Deprived of any earthly means and security, they had only God to turn to for support and survival. They then surrendered themselves totally to him.

Thus, the widow of Zarephath put her trust in Elijah and the words of his Lord. In the face of sure starvation, she gave all that she had, feeding the man of God before herself and her son. Likewise, the widow in the gospel gave all she had to support the work of God’s priests in the temple.
Unknowingly, the widows’ act of self-sacrifice mirrors the Father’s own love in giving us his Son and foreshadows Christ’s act of total self-giving on the cross.

This reminds us of the basic truth that genuine faith is made manifest in love of God and love of neighbor. The two women demonstrated their faith by their act of charity: one for the prophet, the other by almsgiving. Their action powerfully attests to the inseparable unity between faith and love, between love of God and love of neighbor (last Sunday’s gospel theme). As St. James reminds us, “Faith without good deeds is dead.” (Jm 2:17)

The faith of the widow of Zarephath was amply rewarded by God’s own overwhelming generosity. “The jar of flour did not go empty, nor the jug of oil run dry, as the Lord had foretold through Elijah.” As for the widow of the temple, the gospel does not tell what happened to her. Whether she became rich or remained poor is immaterial. What is certain is that God’s providence accompanied her through life. One writer says it well, “Faith is the channel through which the generosity and power of God flow into the world.”

Because the two widows trusted in God and gave their all, God returned their gift, multiplied many times over. God does it every time. Pope John Paul II calls this the Law of the Gift. If you want your love to grow, give it away. If you want to strengthen your faith, share it. If you want to deepen your joy, spread it. Your gift increases in the measure you give it away.

In my ministry, I’ve had the privilege of meeting countless “widows,” men and women with little means but with a great heart, ever willing to give for God and for his works. As a young bishop of Kabankalan, I had my first Fiesta Mass in a poor parish. When the parish priest handed me the stipend, I respectfully declined saying that the parish would need it more than myself. The parish priest insisted that I should accept it lest the people would know and feel offended. He then quoted a line from the community’s favorite hymn, “No one is so poor that he cannot give, or so rich that he cannot receive.” I accepted the people’s offering and it became the seed money of our diocesan solidarity fund.

I have the same experience in my present diocese of Bacolod. As we recall the story of the widow who dropped her mite into the treasury box, I cannot help but think of the second collection we pass around after communion for our sick and elderly priests.

One of our biggest expenses in the diocese is on our priests’ care program, especially in this time of the pandemic. Thanks to God and to the unlimited generosity of our faithful, we somehow manage to make ends meet. It truly humbles me (to the point of feeling ashamed) to think that every centavo spent on our sick priests come from people, many of whom cannot even afford to send their own sick to the hospital, much less submit for medical intervention. What generosity, what love! At times, I can only say, “We don’t deserve our people.”*

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