For most of us this is a classic passage in the Gospels … we’ve heard it ever since we were children. On the surface it’s easy to understand – makes a good picture in our minds, appeals to children’s storytellers. For the uneducated in Scriptural ways, it may seem like a strange story, even funny. Some translations say: “And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites in the basket. Two mites! Heavens, they may think, I wouldn’t know a mite if I saw one but I thought a mite was a bed bug.
So what is a mite? I thought I knew and when I checked I did, but only a part of the definition. Says Webster: A mite is a minute arachnid (spider) that has four pairs of legs. Ticks are a close relative. There are skin mites, bed mites and dust mites. Many kinds of mites live in the soil and a number are parasitic on plants or animals or humans where they can cause relentless itching and an angry rash.
Of course, this is not the type of mite Jesus is referring to. You know that. The dictionary continues. A mite is something small — could be an animal, a child, or often a coin. Mark tells us this widow gave “two mites” which in British coins together make one farthing. A farthing was an old British coin taken out of circulation about forty years ago. So, the “widow’s mite” translation doesn’t even make sense in Britain anymore!
Fundraisers and advancement director love this widow…. dutifully trying to scrape together two pennies to contribute to the annual appeal on Give Day. They offer her multiple ways to make her small donation. And they tell her if she only put that money in savings … well by now, invested at a 4% interest rate, compounded semi-annually, there’d be 4 trillion in that account – enough to pay off several national debts from several small countries.
The reality, of course, is that this woman, and she need not be “old” – she lives most days with an empty refrigerator (if she has one), a bare cupboard, no electricity or running water.
She is our responsibility. Scripture abounds with exhortations to protect this widow. Jesus condemns the value system of those in power who devour the property, the houses and the scant wealth of widows.
Jesus calls attention, however, to a poor widow who makes the smallest of contributions—two coins of little value. She’s not looking for a blare of trumpets to announce her generosity. Jesus upholds the poor widow’s offering for his disciples’ consideration, commending her because her small offering was an act of profound generosity, giving from her livelihood rather than her surplus.
For us “wealth” is more than money …. we give our lives for each other. We listen showing interest and attention, we join in activities that would not be our first choice; we reach out with our expertise and influence – gained through educational opportunities provided by our community – Sisters till the soil, nurture gardens, prepare meals that nourish our bodies that enable us to offer our physical presence in ministry.
We contribute funds held in common for causes that help reach beyond where any single one of us could make a significant difference. We share, too, from our personal allowance for human causes that tug at our heartstrings.
We share our talents and our space for events like Sunday’s patriotic concert and give of ourselves mingling during social events. We keep tight the connection between our Sisters in nursing homes, caroling at Christmastime and visiting often.
The widow who puts “two cents” in the basket. We recognize that we each of us has “two coins, two mites” to contribute. We hold a piece of the wisdom and generously offer our “two cents” when we make decisions that have an impact on all of us and our life in community.
To give from one’s livelihood is, without a doubt, an act of generosity. It is also an act of trust and total dependence on God. We can only give from our need if we trust that God will provide for us. Jesus himself demonstrates the ultimate act of generosity in giving his very life for us on the cross.
We can identify with the widow in tomorrow’s Old Testament reading. We, too, sing God’s praises because for nigh on 130 years our “jar of flour has not gone empty” and “our jug of oil” never runs dry.
~Reflection by Sister Roberta Bailey, OSB, Prioress