Pennies of the poor widow

© Wikimedia Commons - Paulus Lesire

Life Is a Gift, Not a Show

Lectio Divina: 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

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Roman Rite

1 Kings 17.10- 16; Ps 146; B 9.24 -28; Mk 12.38 – 44

Ambrosian Rite

Is 49.1 to 7; Ps 21; Phil 2, 5-11; Lk 23.36 – 43?

Last Sunday of the Ambrosian liturgical year

Our Lord Jesus Christ King of the Universe

1. True humility.

The Gospel that the liturgy has chosen for this Sunday presents two scenes of life that are actual even today and that invite us to examine our consciences about the way we Christians should be: humble and devout. Jesus even today teaches us what in the Temple of Jerusalem he had taught to his disciples, «Beware of the scribes, who like to go around in long robes and accept greetings in the marketplaces, seats of honor in synagogues, and places of honor at banquets. They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext, recite lengthy prayers.  They will receive a very severe condemnation. 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.’» (Mk 12, 38-42)

The purpose of the first scene in which Christ speaks of the scribes is to denounce some wrong ways of doing, which can be done by any religious man in every time period. Such men show first of all because of their vain attitudes, a defect that would make us smile but that is unfortunately always current.

The scribes wear sophisticated clothes and claim deference and reverence. But the worst thing is that they have introduced deception into their lives (» they devour the houses of widows and for show offer long prayers»). Separating the worship of God from justice is a double deception: they pray to God and hurt the poor. A deception even worse is to deceive even themselves in believing to love God and the neighbor, and instead loving only themselves. The moral authority they possess, the doctrine they know, the religious practices they do, all is used by them to put themselves on the spot, and everything is exploited to their advantage. Even the criteria of justice end up identifying with their own gain.

I think that it is important to note that the purpose of the Redeemer is not just to invite to humility, denouncing the arrogance and the hypocrisy of the scribes.  After having denounced the scribes as false and misleading teachers, in the second part of the story, which has as protagonist a poor widow, Jesus indicates this woman as an example of a true teacher, who teaches to donate everything. In this way, with a “small” example all can understand the great example of Christ, who gave himself to the point of dying for us to give us life.

The scene takes place in the courtyard of the temple of Jerusalem, where also the women were admitted. In this courtyard there were thirteen baskets into which the offerings were thrown. It was a gesture made in front of a priest of the Temple, who verified the authenticity of the coins and declared aloud the amount to the crowd that attended this «show.» Even Jesus, High Priest of the New Testament, is sitting in front of these thirteen small baskets but does not praise – as do others – the generous donations of which the priest had announced the entity.

The Son of God does not look at appearances, because God looks at the heart (see 1 Sam 16.7) and praises a widow who offers a few coins. This poor woman who has no one and that is less than anyone, has such faith in God that offers to Him a small amount that is all that she has, because she is sure to belong to God.

  1. Authentic devotion

The gesture of the woman is not spectacular, but it is a genuine practice of mercy that Jesus recognizes and indicates as authentic gesture because it is sure, right, orderly, devout, and humble, in one word total. This widow throws in the treasure of the Temple everything she owns and throws in God all that she is. Everything that this poor widow owns, and that she offers, reminds us of the extent of the love of Christ that is to give his own life. True love is to give everything, without calculation, without self-interest, without measures as in this case and as it is always done by the Lord.

Going backwards commenting the four adjectives that qualify the authentic gesture, I’d like to add that it is a gesture:

Humble, because made with no demands and because God «will regard the prayer of the humble and not despise their prayer» (Psalm 102.18);

Devout, because it stems from charity, namely the love of God and neighbor, lived as a gift of himself;

Orderly, because nothing is put ahead of God and in God it loves the neighbor;

Right, because it asks the good things. Prayer is a «a request to God for things that are good for us» (St. John of Damascus);

Sure, because done by a heart sure to be heard «He calls me, I will answer» (Ps 92.15).

This gesture of genuine and total devotion is «used» by the Magisterium of Jesus to teach that His way of measuring the world is not with the criterion of the amount, but with the heart. In the eyes of the one who looks at the heart, the amount is only appearance. What matters is not the money, but how much love it is placed in it, how much life it contains. As St. John of the Cross «At the sunset of life, we will be judged on love». Today’s episode, like the description of the final judgment «I was hungry, thirsty, etc., and you gave me food, drink etc. «, remind us that the Gospel can be lived thanks to a piece of bread or a glass of cold water given only for love or thanks to two small coins given with a whole heart.

The important thing is to give wholeheartedly. Jesus doesn’t care much that we give everything like the widow of today’s Gospel or half of our assets like Zacchaeus, because he does not measure. He asks to be loved with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our being. It is for this reason that he praises the widow and says to Zacchaeus who gave away half his possessions «Today salvation has come to this house» (see Lk 19: 9).

Charity is not measured in weight or time. The gift that has “weight” for Christ is what we do by giving ourselves to Him «with total abandon and loving trust» (see Mother Theresa of Calcutta). One can give his life, as St. Paul says, but if he does not have love in his heart and is generous only to feel praised, to feel good…it is better to forget it. We can give rich offerings to the Church and to the poor, but if our heart is not in God, those goods are nothing more than dust. Jesus asks us to give a lot of what we have, but to give joyfully all that we can.

Finally, I believe that it is right and proper to point out that the widow indicated by Jesus in the Gospel of today is the image of the Church-Bride that gives herself totally to the Bridegroom who is Christ, the Son of God that became poor for her.

To the example of this woman, then, the consecrated virgins in the world must take inspiration to live their spousal vocation. They too, like this woman, are called to witness that no other presence can find place in them and that, like her, they put everything at the disposal of God and of his Kingdom. Their life becomes a true concrete response to Christ who tells them «You have stolen my heart, my sister, my bride, you have ravished my heart with one glance of your eyes» (Song of Songs 4.9). Increasingly with their
lives they, like the bride of the Song of Songs, ask to the beloved «Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; because strong as death is love, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame, a flame of the Lord»(Song of Songs 8.6). In fact, «I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine» (Song of Songs 6.3). Virginity, which reveals the integrity, holiness and truth of a person, allows to live for the Lord, to testify that the human heart is made by God and for God and to serve God with an undivided heart in total dedication, starting with the gift of two small coins.


Patristic Reading

Golden Chain

On Mk 12, 41- 44


Bede: The Lord, who had warned them to avoid the desire of high place and vain glory, now distinguishes by a sure test those who brought in gifts.

Wherefore it is said, «And Jesus sat over against the treasury, and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury.»

In the Greek language, «phylassein», means to keep, and «gaza» is a Persian word for treasure; wherefore the word «gazophylacium» which is here used means a place where riches are kept, which name also was applied to the chest in which the offerings of the people were collected, for the necessary uses of the temple, and to the porch in which they were kept.

You have a notice of the porch in the Gospel, «These words spake Jesus in the treasury as He taught in the temple:» (Jn 8,20) and of the chest in the book of Kings, «But Jehoiada the priest took a chest.» (2R 12,9)

Theophylact: Now there was a praiseworthy custom amongst the Jews, that those who were able and willing should put something into the treasury, for the maintenance of the priests, the poor, and the widows.

Wherefore there is added, «And many that were rich cast in much.»

But whilst many people were so engaged, a poor widow came up, and shewed her love by offering money according to her ability.

Wherefore it is said, «And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing.»

Bede: Reckoners use the words «quadrans» for the fourth part of any thing, be it place, money, or time. Perhaps then in this place is meant the fourth part of a shekel, this is, five pence.

It goes on: «And He called unto Him His disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury:» for God does not weigh the property but the conscience of those who offer; nor did He consider the smallness of the sum in her offering, but what was the store from which it came.

Wherefore He adds, «For all they did cast in of their abundance, but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.»

Pseudo-Jerome: But in a mystical sense, they are rich, who bring forth from the treasure of their heart things new and old, which are the obscure and hidden things of Divine wisdom in both testaments; but who is the poor woman, if it be not I and those like me, who cast in what I can, and have the will to explain to you, where I have, (p. 253) not the power. For God does not consider how much ye bear, but what is the store from which it comes; but each at all events can bring his farthing, that is, a ready will, which is called a farthing, because it is accompanied by three things, that is, thought, word and deed. And in that it is said that «she cast in all her living,» it is implied that all that the body wants is that by which it lives. Wherefore it is said, «All the labour of man is for his mouth.» (Eccl 6:7)

Theophylact: Or else; that widow is the soul of man, which leaving Satan to which it had been joined, casts into the temple two mites, that is, the flesh and the mind, the flesh by abstinence, the mind by humility, that so it may be able to hear that it has cast away all its living, and has consecrated it, leaving nothing for the world of all that it possessed.

Bede: Again, in an allegorical way, the rich men, who cast gifts into the treasury, point out the Jews puffed up with the righteousness of the law; the poor widow is the simplicity of the Church: poor indeed, because she has cast away the spirit of pride and of the desires of worldly things; and a widow, because Jesus her husband has suffered death for her. She casts two mites into the treasury, because she brings the love of God and of her neighbour, or the gifts of faith and prayer; which are looked upon as mites in their own insignificance, but measured by the merit of a devout intention are superior to all the proud works of the Jews. The Jew sends of his abundance into the treasury, because he presumes on his own righteousness; but the Church sends her whole living into God’s treasury, because she understands that even her very living is not of her own desert, but of Divine grace.


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Archbishop Francesco Follo

Monsignor Francesco Follo è osservatore permanente della Santa Sede presso l'UNESCO a Parigi.

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