Jesus said, “I tell you truly: this poor widow has contributed more than all of them. For all these gave their gifts out of their abundance. But this woman contributed out of her poverty everything that she had to live on.”
Luke 21: 3-4
If we are honest, we have to admit that the teachings of Jesus are quite often befuddling and apparently contradictory to us. In Chapter 14 of Luke, we are told that we must not enter into discipleship without first “counting the cost” (Luke 14:28), that is calculating what it will mean for us to give everything for the love of Jesus. In the parable we read today, Jesus teaches that our model is to be the widow who seems to give without calculating what it will mean for her.
Perhaps the widow has already done the calculus involved. Her state has left her marginal in her society and apparently alone in the world. She may realize that she has nothing to lose. Perhaps she is abandoning herself in desperation, uncaring about the outcome of being hungry and penniless. Or , perhaps, on the other hand, she has learned through the course of her life that as all forms rise and fall, as everything, including ourselves, comes to life and passes away, that the very nature of reality is giving and what Meister Eckhart calls gelassenheit or releasement (letting go).
In this sense, it may be that Jesus’ teaching is not contradictory, but rather that he is speaking of two different stages of the road to discipleship. Early on we must “count the cost” of what we are undertaking, because it will ask of us not less than everything. The road to discipleship and spiritual transformation will demand of us a willingness to let go of all our certainties, including our most fundamental beliefs about who we are are and what we need. If we insist on holding on to any aspect of our own way, even the smallest thread of self-justification and personal certitude, then we’d best not waste our time and resources. We should learn from the king who is facing a superior army of the enemy and so sues for peace rather than suffering enormous losses of soldiers and wealth in an inevitably fruitless endeavor. As John of the Cross points out, a bird is as held from flight by a slight thread as much as by a much stronger rope. If we are to cling to anything or anyone other than the Lord, we had best not undertake the journey.
What distinguishes the poor widow is that she holds nothing back. She is Jesus’ equivalent of the widow of Zarephath who uses up her last “handful of flour” and “little jug of oil” to make a loaf of break for Elijah (1 Kings 17: 17-24). In the story from Kings we are told that the result of the widow’s giving is an unending supply of flour and oil. Jesus’ parable, on the other hand, does not give us any result of the poor widow’s generosity. Perhaps that is really the added power of the story. Jesus’’ teaching is not primarily moral or ethical but rather spiritual. The widow in his parable acts as she does for no other reason than that for her giving is what is called for in the moment. Giving is what she does and who she is.
When St. Francis of Assisi prays that “It is in giving that we receive,” he is not praying to give so that he will receive. He is describing the very truth of things. All that we are and have is given to us. “Freely you have received, freely give.” (Matthew 10:8) So, our “place” in God’s creation is as an intermediary, as an instrument, of God’s gifts and grace. That of creation that has been given to us is to be passed on, and even enhanced by our unique touching of it, for the life of the world. Creation should be enriched and not depleted by its passing through our own lives.
To live as an instrument, a medium, of God’s creative love and life is the way of peace, freedom, and love. This comes for us, however, at great cost. For it feels like death to us. We may admire the “poor widow,” but do we really want to be her? The great illusion of our lives, one that we strain throughout life to maintain, is that our own life belongs to us. We believe we can structure our lives and accumulate adequate necessities so that we might experience whatever for us is an adequate and livable level of control and security. Yet, if not before, at the time of our death we shall all be the poor widow. If not before in our lives, at that moment we shall have a choice to give from our poverty everything we have to live on, or to struggle to hold on to what we continue mistakenly to believe is ours. The widow behaves as she does not out of an ethical imperative and not in order to become something or someone, even in a spiritual sense. Rather she is living out, which means passing on, the life she has been given by God. Out of the reality of her human poverty, she gives away “everything she had to live on,” trusting in the One on whom she realizes she is always dependent.
We speak about gospel or evangelical counsels. Among them is the counsel of poverty. In the tradition of the Church, from the Acts of the Apostles on, evangelical poverty has pointed to the truth that if everything is given by God than everything belongs to all. “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.” (Acts 4: 32) The “vow” of poverty is to live and to witness to the truth that nothing “belongs” to me. All is a gift, given to each, so that stamped by our uniqueness it may be shared and passed on, more valuable in the giving than when we received it. One of the first signs that communities of persons are dying is when our human propensity for acquisition and individualism begins to overtake the generosity and flow of “life in common.” Our deepest and most authentic nature is a capacity for reception of gift and releasement of those gifts back into the world. One of the strongest manifestations of our pride or false form is our perceived need to grasp, to hold, to acquire for ourselves.
When we are living releasement, we act for no reason except to give ourselves to the flow of God’s generosity and gift of life in the world. In the words of the gospel we act and we give “freely.” Most often, however, we have multiple motives for acting, many of which involve itself enhancement, at the material, intellectual, emotional, and even spiritual levels. As for the widow, may the realization of our poverty actually enrich our capacity for generosity, that, in time, we may come to act, in trust, to give, for no special reason whatever, “everything . . .[we have] to live on.”
“Every day is a good day.” This famous koan doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t complain if you have some difficulty. What it means is “Don’t spend your time in vain.” I think most people are spending their time in vain. “No, I’m always busy,” they may say. But if they say so, it is a sure sign that they are spending their time in vain. Most people do things with some feeling of purpose, as if they know what they are doing. But even so, I don’t think they have a proper understanding of their activity.
When you do something with a purpose based on some evaluation of what is useful or useless, good or bad, more or less valuable, your understanding is not perfect. If you do things that need to be done regardless of whether the results are good or bad, successful or unsuccessful, that is real practice. If you do things not because of Buddha, or truth, or yourself, or others, but for the things themselves, that is the true way.
Shunryu Suzuki, Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness, p. 165