There are two ways of being generous: the way of the scribes, and the way of the widow. The scribes were the experts in interpreting the Law of Moses, and the Law of Moses was the core of Jewish culture. And so the people of ancient Israel respected and reverenced the scribes. But Jesus was unhappy with them.
Without a doubt, they worked long, hard hours; they were always busy with worthy projects. But, unfortunately, their natural intellectual gifts and elevated social function had gone to their heads. Instead of exercising their leadership as a service to the nation and to their neighbors, they were flaunting it to stoke their vanity, increase their comfort, and enhance their reputation. The higher they climbed, the more they looked down on everyone else. They considered themselves superior because they gave more time, talent, and treasure to the Temple than anyone else. But this was a one-dimensional view of generosity. The scribes were forgetting that all those external things were actually gifts God had given them in the first place.
What God truly wants from us is something more, something deeper: he wants our love; he wants us to trust in him. This is what the poor widow gave to him. She didn’t just share some of her abundance; she handed over to God all of her wealth, saying to him: “Lord, you are my good shepherd, and I will follow wherever you lead.” That was a prayer the scribes never prayed. They considered that they were doing God a favor by serving him; the widow understood that God was the one doing the favors. That’s the kind of generosity God wants to see flourish in each one of us: the generosity by which we give to God not just our stuff, but our heart.
This same lesson comes across clearly in today's First Reading. We don't know if the widow who was gathering sticks would have recognized that Elijah was the famous prophet. It is likely that she wouldn't have – there was no TV or Internet back then to spread images of famous people. But even if she did, she had very little reason to comply with his request for a drink of water. A drought and a famine had devastated the country, and she and her only son were on the verge of starvation. She was suffering intensely, she had grave problems of her own, and she had plenty of reasons to lash out at someone who ignored her suffering and asked favors of her.
It is in times of hardship and stress that our true character shines out. And in the case of this widow, her true character was truly courageous. She left aside her own work when Elijah asked her for a favor, loving her neighbor as herself. And when he asked more than she could give, she didn't become vindictive or angry, but simply stated the facts. She was a woman who recognized her own dependence on God, and as a result she was able to be generous towards others who were in need, without getting tangled up in self-centered complications.
Her selfless generosity accurately reflected God’s goodness. And God rewards her for it. He showers her with his blessings, proving that she was right to trust in him; that he truly is the Lord of the universe. God doesn't always insulate us from the sufferings of life in a fallen world, as he did with this widow after she met Elijah. But if we, like her, humbly recognize our dependence on him by living generosity of the heart, we will not lose our reward.
Because of our fallen human nature, we all have a strong tendency to follow the example of the scribes instead of the widow. Just think about how hurt and angry we feel when we work hard to help or to please someone, and then they don't show any appreciation for our efforts. Or, to take another example, think about how sensitive we are when someone criticizes us or misinterprets our motives.
We truly need to purify our hearts of the self-centered attitudes that make us more like the scribes than the widow. This is not something we can do on our own, nor is it something that usually happens from one day to the next. But we can make progress, under two conditions.
First, we have to take small steps, being patient with ourselves as we gradually learn to do what is right out of a desire to please God, not other people. Second, we have to ask for God to help us. His grace is our secret weapon, and too often we keep it on the shelf simply because we don't ask for his help.
A short prayer composed by St Ignatius of Loyola is particularly suited for growth in this type of heart-felt generosity. It goes like this:
Dear Lord, teach me to be generous;
Teach me to serve you as you deserve;
To give and not to count the cost;
To fight and not to heed the wounds;
To toil, and not to seek for rest; To labor,
and not to ask for any reward -
except that of knowing that I am doing your holy will. Amen.
As we go through our lives, let's live it from our hearts, exercising our trust in his goodness and power, and offering our lives to him in thanksgiving for all he has given us, just like the poor widow.