One of the great blessings with living in the wide open spaces of the prairie is that we can observe birds soaring above us in their grandeur of God given freedom. The story is told of a man who trapped an eagle which he put it in a cage on display in his store hoping to attract customers. One customer saw this and asked the owner how much he wanted for the eagle. The answer was a huge amount. The customer purchased the eagle, left the store and immediately set the eagle free. He was asked why he would spend so much money on a bird just to let it go. His response was, “wealth isn’t what you’ve got, but what you’ll give to do the good that needs to be done”. The good that needs to be done is to give in a variety of ways what we can of ourselves so that our brothers and sisters in need physically and spiritually can fly free from those things that cage them in. Freedom is not dependent on what we have but whose we are.
Consider the two widows in our readings. In those days long ago women could not own property or inherit estates, so once a husband died, many widows became dependent on the love and generosity of family and friends. Yet these two widows by their actions evidenced the freedom that comes from resting in God, whose they were.
In the reading from Mark’s gospel, Jesus at the Temple in Jerusalem watched people as the make donations for the upkeep of the temple. He contrasted the wealthy, whose donations they barely felt because they had so much more for their needs, with the poor widow who gave everything she had. Her gift was greater, Jesus tells us, because she gave all she had and therefore trusted that God would provide for the future. She could have withheld one coin for a rainy day, hedged her trust, but freely she gave all she had.
In the first reading from Kings the widow was about to prepare for herself and her son the last bit of food she had. After it was gone, she believed that there would be nothing left. But even so, she freely chose to share what she had with a stranger who turned out to be the prophet Elijah. As a result of her willingness to sacrifice and share from her poverty, God provided. And so he will provide what we truly need.
We are called as Christians to live in freedom, making choices that are right even though sacrificial, trusting that God will provide. To be a sacrificial giver means to part with something – time, money, skills, whatever – because it is the right thing to do, even if it is inconvenient or risky or we would rather not. Real generosity forces us to make choices, establish priorities, and be willing to do without for a greater purpose. There are few of us, and I include myself, who sacrifice, or really who take that leap of faith, as fully as did those poor widows.
Sometimes we do not offer from our want because it takes work. To be on a sports team or play a musical instrument or maintain healthy family life requires serious effort. We must be willing to do what it takes. To be a fully committed disciple of Christ requires serious effort as well, the willingness to do what it takes in whatever way we can whenever the opportunity to reach out to others in need is presented to us. I was celebrating Mass in a nursing home once when one of the residents began coughing and could not stop. Suddenly another resident with great effort pushed herself up from the chair, grabbed her walker and slowly left the room to return a short time later with a glass of water for the coughing lady. That was a sacrificial gift that took work and a desire to do the right thing and then in freedom doing it.
Sometimes we do not offer what we have because we lack the courage or are concerned about what others might think or say about us. On the first day of school some students were waiting for the bus to come. A little boy was going to school for the first time. He was scared. A high school senior who lived across the road from his house was there joking with friends. Suddenly the little boy ran over to the senior, grabbed his hand, held it tight, looked up and smiled. The senior was taken aback, his friends studied him. What should he do, what would the others think of him holding the hand of this little boy? The senior looked down into the smiling face and kept hold of the scared little boy’s hand. That was a sacrificial gift that took courage in the midst of peers and a desire to do the right thing and in freedom doing it.
Sometimes we do not offer what we have because we think we have little to give, feel unworthy or question who we are in comparison with others. Do you remember the Gospel story of the boy who gave up his five barley loaves and two small fish to Jesus who performed a miracle with them? There is a legend about him, that he hurried home and excitedly told his mother about how his barley loaves and fish had been multiplied by Jesus until there was enough to feed thousands with more left over. Then with a wistful look he added, “I wonder, Mother, whether it would be that way with everything we gave him.”
A lady told of when she worked in a House of Hospitality in New York, an outreach to the poor and needy. Every Saturday morning a lady would slowly walk in and place four pennies on the desk, explaining in a low voice that it was all she had to give to Christ for the poor. Then with a smile she would ask for prayers and slowly leave. This went on for four years. Over time it was learned that she was a widow, that she cleaned offices at night and that her name was Martha. Then one Saturday she did not come in. It was learned that a poor woman from the neighborhood had recently been buried in an unmarked grave in a cemetery plot set aside for those without. Asked who she was, all that was known was that her first name was Martha.
We may think that what we have to offer is little, but when we offer it to the Lord, things never imagined can happen. That poor widow observed by Jesus from afar probably thought she was unnoticed while she in faith gave from her heart two coins. Over 2,000 years later we are talking about her, learning from her, she is a model of Christian love. Christ multiplied her gift to serve as an example for us all.
Someone once said, ‘you can give without loving but you cannot love without giving.’ We are called to love as did Jesus, to trust as did Jesus and as did the widows. It may take work, it may take courage, and it may disrupt our comfortable lives. It may seem like we have little to offer or that it won’t make a difference. But if it seems the right thing, it will set us free.
Do not be surprised that the sacrificial offering of oneself to others in the name of Christ will lift you up in awe like seeing an eagle fly over the expanse of the prairie.