Last Monday we had a familiar and heart-warming story from St Luke’s gospel at Mass. It was the story of Jesus watching in the temple at Jerusalem as rich patrons came in and dropped off large sums of money into the treasury box, with great fanfare and acclaim from the priests and all the people watching. Jesus alone notices a poor widow coming in, ignored by everyone else, to quickly drop in to the box two small coins and scurry out again. This makes Jesus say to his disciples: ”Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all the others; for they have contributed out of their abundance , but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on” (Luke 21: 1 – 4).
Understand, Jesus wasn’t putting down the other donors, or despising their contributions. He is making the point that the widow’s donation was of better quality than these others, even though way inferior in terms of quality, because it represented, for her, total self-gift, unlike with the others, who all had plenty of money left over, even after making their large contributions. The point is even clearer when we are told in the gospel story that the woman had two coins, and put them both in – she could have kept one, and no-one would have blamed her, in fact they would have urged her to do exactly that, to take care of herself first, and not be stupid enough to drop both coins into the box. But the widow thought different, and acted differently, to all these others.
The difference between the greater majority of people, and those fewer ones whom we acclaim as saints, is that the latter are prepared to throw everything that they have and are, into the Lord’s service, whereas the rest of us, myself included, want to hold back something for ourselves. That seems to us reasonable, prudent and allows us to think kindly of ourselves because we are at least doing something for the Lord, even though we know we could give, or do, more. But we get into a habit of separating our lives into what belongs to the Lord, and what belongs to us. So we divide our time, for instance, into our time, and the Lord’s time. I make sure I give to the Lord the half-hour or so I spend at Mass, or saying my prayers, maybe reading the Bible or a spiritual book, but we consider the rest of our day as ours, to spend in whatever way we want. But the person who is all in for the Lord, says when they wake up in the morning: ”Lord, this whole day is yours. How do you want me to use it for your glory?” The Lord may well want us to use it for the purposes we were going to use it for anyway – going to work, taking care of the children, cleaning the house, visiting someone in need. The point is that we realize that the whole day belongs to God, and he gets to determine how we should spend it. It is just a whole different way of looking at our lives. As Psalm 31: 15 reminds us: ”My time is in your hands, O Lord”.
Or we get a bonus from work, or someone sends us a gift of money, or we get a tax rebate. Most of us say to ourselves: ”Great, what am I going to do with my extra money? Shall I buy this thing that I have set my heart on, or pay down the mortgage, or put it toward the holiday that I have promised myself?” The person, whose heart is set on the Lord, says instead: ”Lord, this is your money, not mine, or my family’s. What do you want me to do with it?” The Lord may well tell you to put it into the bank, or towards the mortgage, or give you and your wife a good holiday. But he may direct you instead to give it to charity, or some of it to charity, or to someone who you know really needs it. The point is, it is our attitude to the money which matters, not how much of it we have, that we regard it, and everything else we have, as the Lord’s first and foremost, and not ours, to do with it whatever we decide.
I could go on multiplying examples, but I hope you get my point. A person who has no time for God, or Jesus, or Church, or faith, will get along making their own decisions about their life, and not bother to consult God about any of it. But we, who are Catholic Christians, for whom faith is an important part of our lives, are meant to think, and act, differently. We are to witness to the world, that our story is not our story alone, but is part of His story, History. God is not there to simply do what we ask of him, we are here on this earth to do what He asks of us. And what does he ask of us? The Bible gives us plenty of wisdom and counsel and direction on this.
Take our second reading, from St Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. This letter is directed to a Christian community who are trying to live as intentional disciples of Jesus Christ. In other words, they are not people who happen to have been baptized and confirmed Catholics, who now, however, rarely go to church, except at Christmas and Easter, or for baptisms, weddings and funerals. The Thessalonians are Christians who want to live their faith purposely, who want to have Jesus at the center of their lives and help bring in the kingdom of God. When they pray “Thy kingdom come” in the Our Father, they mean it, they are anxious for Christ to return and deliver the world from all its evil and bring us to heaven to spend eternity with him. When they pray “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”, again, they mean it. In heaven God’s will is carried out by every single person there. Here on earth, God looks to us Christians , who pray the Our Father regularly, to do what we say, and seek in every moment of our lives, to do His will, not ours.
So Paul is speaking in that second reading, to people like us, committed Christians, not to non-believers. In fact, the whole of the Bible is directed to people who want to be disciples of Jesus, not just be fair-weather, whenever-I-feel-like-it , followers of His. It is a book by disciples , for disciples, about what it means to be disciples – in other words, intentional disciples. Paul has already been complimenting the church in Thessalonica for their great witness of faith, hope and love of Jesus, in the midst of a pagan world that is persecuting them for it. But Paul doesn’t leave it there. He doesn’t just pat them on the back, and say “You’re doing great”. He pats them on theback, says “You’re doing great”, then adds “Now go on doing what you are doing more and more”. Listen to his words in that second reading, and remember, he is talking to the likes of you and me:”May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all . . . may he strengthen your hearts in holiness . . . we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus that…you ought to live and please God, more and more”. In other words Paul is saying to the Thessalonian Christians, and to you and me, brothers and sisters: ”Well done, you have dropped in the first coin of all you have and are. Now it is time to drop in the second coin.”
This season of Advent, as I have already said, is the beginning of a new year for the Church. And like any new year, we will probably be forming new resolutions for self-improvement. But as Catholic Christians, we don’t want to think in terms of a self–improvement that just comes from us. We want to improve precisely as Christians, in our whole call to holiness and to love. It is ironic that Jesus says in our gospel today that we should be on guard that our hearts “are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life”, so that we are caught off-guard by Christ’s return from heaven at the end of the world. I hope and pray that we will not be like so many , even some Christians, who see the coming Christmas season, as just so many opportunities for dissipation and drunkenness. But also, we are not to be like those who already are starting to have anxious thoughts about how to get everybody for Christmas, what family member will be hosting this year, what about the covid 19 virus, how will that affect us, what happens if the supplies of food and gifts are impeded because of the virus, how much money do we have to buy gifts, and so on, and so on. Yes, of course, we will probably worry about some of that, but it must not take over our whole hearts and minds, that there is nothing left for God. As Jesus tells us, tells people like you and me, believers and disciples, in the gospel of Matthew: ”Do not worry, saying “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “what shall we wear?”. For the pagans, the non-believers, strive for all these things; and indeed , your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But you, you strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you as well” (Matthew 6:31 -33).
Do you see, brothers and sisters, the point that Jesus is making?
Did you pick up on that one word “first?” First seek the kingdom of God and his righteousness. Not that these other issues aren’t important. Of course they are, especially for those in our societies that struggle for the basic needs. But first and foremost, our top priority should be, has to be, what matters to God. And what matters to God is that we not get so obsessed with material things, that we forget we are also “spirit-people”, as well as “body-people”. The spiritual side of ourselves needs attending to as well as the physical and material side. And God has got that, he promises to take care of all of that, if we will focus our minds and hearts on doing what pleases him. And what is that, as we go into Advent and into a new year? The Old Testament prophet, Micah, said it first and said it best, over 2800 years ago: ”What does the Lord ask of you? Only this: to act justly, love tenderly and walk humbly with your God”. (Micah 6:8).
If you say to me: ”Hey, I am already doing all of that” I will respond, like St Paul: ”Great! Carry on doing that, but do it more and more?”
Brothers and sisters, it is time to drop the second coin of all we have and all we are, into God’s box. That is my challenge to you, and to me, this Advent.