Giving away money can be a touchy issue. Jesus does not avoid difficult issues. He raises hard questions and sometimes he does not give a direct answer to the question. Both Luke and Mark record a situation toward the end of Jesus’ life when he sees a widow throw a couple of almost worthless coins into the Temple collection. He calls attention to her saying that her contribution was the largest. Here is how Mark words it.
He sat down opposite the treasury and observed how the crowd put money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow also came and put in two small coins worth a few cents. Calling his disciples to himself, he said to them, “Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.” Mark 12:41-44
This situation raises questions that can be sort of troubling. Especially at Lent, when the Church urges us to give money for Christian works.
Does Jesus mean for me to imitate this widow?
Maybe the first thing to note is that Jesus neither commands nor even recommends that anyone imitate the widow in “contribut[ing] all she had, her whole livelihood”. He doesn’t say let this be an example for you to follow and he definitely doesn’t say anything snarky like if we just had more like her, we could get something done around here. He simply calls attention to her sacrifice, which no one else saw. Perhaps knowing that in a few days he too would give all on the cross, he was touched by how her gift mirrored his.
But just because Jesus doesn’t say we have to be like this widow doesn’t mean grabby little Christians can breathe a sigh of relief and hang onto their money even in Lent. Get your Bible out and look at these passages in Luke’s Gospel. All are quotes from Jesus.
- No one of you can be my disciple unless he gives up all his possessions Luke 14:33
- Sell your possessions and give to charity Luke 12:33
- Give to everyone who asks of you Luke 6:30
So could Jesus really mean for me to give away everything like the widow?
What about St. Peter and St. Paul? What do they say?
Everybody knows that if the Bible has a lot to say about some subject, then our responsibility is to look at all the passages and use our faith and intelligence and conscience to understand what God is asking of us. The Bible has a lot to say about money and possessions. A lot.
In Acts 5, a Christian couple named Ananias and Sapphira sold a piece of property, then they gave part of the money to St. Peter for the church treasury. But they lied to Peter and said they gave all the money. Long story short – they were both struck dead for lying about what they did. When Peter is chewing out Ananias for lying, he says this:
But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart so that you lied to the holy Spirit and retained part of the price of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain yours? And when it was sold, was it not still under your control? Why did you contrive this deed? You have lied not to human beings, but to God.” Acts 5:4
St. Peter says it would have been OK for Ananias to keep part or even all of the money. The problem was lying, not what Ananias did with the money.
Here is what St. Paul says to praise people in Macedonia who contributed to a collection for the Christians in Jerusalem. These people are almost exactly like the widow who gave everything she had.
We want you to know, brothers, of the grace of God that has been given to the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, the abundance of their joy and their profound poverty overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For according to their means, I can testify, and beyond their means, spontaneously, they begged us insistently for the favor of taking part in the service to the holy ones, and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and to us through the will of God. For if the eagerness is there, it is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have. II Corinthians 8:1-5, 12
So St. Paul solves the difficulty for us. First, give yourself to God entirely and enthusiastically, then give gifts to Christian charity according to your ability. It is fair to conclude that Jesus’ statements seemingly to the effect that I must give everything away are, in fact, statements of giving me to Jesus and to others. And when I give me away, by implication, I give him all that I possess – if I am entirely at Jesus’ disposal to use me as he wants, then my money comes along as part of the deal.
And that fits in perfectly with other things I know about Jesus. What Jesus wants more than anything is to have a deep relationship with me that eventually enables me to become like him, that eventually enables me to spend eternity with him. That’s what he wants – and since I live in a material world, this relationship with Jesus includes material goods as well as spiritual. Jesus wants me to use my money the same way he used his entire life when he was with us on earth. He wants me to use my money to help other people in ways that glorify God and bring other people to Jesus.
A real relation with the Creator of the entire universe involves me and everything I have.
God gives generously, even to his enemies. By imitating God with my money, I become more like him and grow closer to him.
Use the things of this world to learn to love the things of heaven.