November 7, 2021

Brief synopsis of the readings: From the 1st Book of Kings we find the Prophet Elijah in the city of Sidon. He met a widow and asked her for water and a scrap of bread. She explained that she was preparing her remaining food for her and her son to eat “and then we shall die.” Elijah assured her that she and her son would not die. She did as he asked and the three of them shared a meal, after which she found that her food was not exhausted. In Mark’s Gospel Jesus warned his disciples against scribes who build themselves up while taking from the poor. He then watched as wealthy people donated large amounts of money. But when a poor widow placed only two small coins Jesus praised her. “[T]his poor widow has put more in than all who have contributed to the treasury; for they have all put in money they had over, but she from the little she had has put in everything she possessed, all she had to live on.”

Can we quantify generosity? Well, we certainly try. We express admiration for charities funded by the wealthiest among us (think the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) and we name large hospitals after large donors. In return for their generosity they receive adulation and recognition and get to feel good about themselves. This appears obvious in today’s Gospel as we can assume these wealthy people made a point of making contributions in full view of everyone.

But Jesus objected to them because, for all their generosity, they really gave very little. Instead he praised the poor woman who gave little in quantity but much in terms of her ability. Much like the woman in our first reading she gave with no assurance that she would continue to have enough to live on.

In fairness our readings are not instructing us to give to the point of irresponsibility and we reserve righteous anger at televangelists who seduce good people to donate more than they should with vague promises that God will refill their bank accounts.

There is a larger discussion of generosity that we should explore. We can give more than money and the poor need more than money. I believe generosity as disciples of Jesus Christ calls us beyond simply writing a check and it calls us to move outside of our comfort zone into a radical new way of living.

At the end of the day generosity entails a relationship between two people where someone gives from his surplus to someone who accepts from his need. A blood donation comes from someone whose body can easily replace a pint of blood to someone who needs more blood than he can provide. The need may come from trauma, or disease, or a congenital condition but the reason doesn’t matter. Both people benefit.

Most of us worry about wealth, but I think I’m safe in thinking that we all worry about how we are perceived by others. We want to be seen as good and we don’t want to be seen as foolish or stupid. And our fear of appearing foolish or stupid often drives our behavior more than it should.

So let’s talk about generosity in a few forms.

I’ll start by talking about generosity of welcome. I’ve sat in on countless church meetings where we’ve talked about how we can attract and welcome new members and it’s been an ongoing source of frustration. Some churches do nothing and some begin worship by asking if anyone is with us for the first time (and, God love them, some show enough courage to identify themselves). Every time (every time) I’ve suggested that we appoint someone to identify them and make a point of approaching them after the mass and thank them for coming, I’ve been shot down. They’ve argued that this would be an imposition but in reality they didn’t want to put themselves out to approach strangers.

Generosity of Inclusion may be the most difficult of all because we all belong to a series of communities. When I was in high school I met someone in college who belonged to the ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps). He told me that his college was so big that you needed to find a group to belong to. Some chose a fraternity or sorority, others joined a sports team or social clubs. For what it’s worth I joined the debate team in college. These allowed us to find a community that included and valued us. This man joined the ROTC and found a safe place for himself.

When we practice the generosity of inclusion we invite someone to belong and that’s incredibly valuable. I suspect we’re all familiar with FOMO (fear of missing out) but I’d like to introduce FOBLO (fear of being left out). Like being left out in a game of musical chairs we fear exclusion. The past few weeks have shown a spotlight on how social media can seriously damage the lives of our young people. Generosity of inclusion, inviting someone who seeks belonging, can make a powerful difference.

Many years ago I was a church youth minister and I got to see this on ground level. When I left that position I had a conversation with one of the youth group members. I remembered that he joined the group several months earlier but I hadn’t remembered why he stayed. He told me that when he came to his second youth group meeting I greeted him by name and thanked him for coming back. At the time I didn’t think much of it, but he did. This happened 33 years ago and I don’t know where he is now, but I look back on that encounter with gratitude.

Generosity always involves some risk. We may welcome someone who doesn’t want to be welcomed, and we may attempt to include someone who doesn’t want to be included. But when the widow placed the two coins in the collection plate she professed a faith that the world would be a better place for her offering.

I think she was right.