How Much Did it Cost You?
Jesus sits across the temple treasury, looking at each person who drops their coins in. His gaze pierces to their thoughts and intentions. He knows how much each person owns, how hard they have worked, and whether their contribution is sacrifice or surplus. As everyone else sees the shiny surface of each big gold coin, he sees how much suffering, sweat, and effort went into each offering. Now here comes a poor widow hobbling forward. She puts in a little coin, and Jesus praises her to his disciples saying, “Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.”
Jesus sees our effort, or lack thereof. He sees beyond our successes or failures, and our wealth or poverty of talent. He sees straight to the heart, and simply asks, “How much did this cost you? How much did you suffer, work, sweat, and strive to give this?” Because Jesus is willing to give everything, and he loves those who, with what little they have, imitate his act of total self-gift. Or at least those who try to.
It is easy to give from our surplus. I can love people around me when I’m having a good day. I can do a lot of generous things when I’ve had enough sleep and enough to eat. Ask me to do something that I’m good at, and I’ll be happy to do it. But like both of the widows in the readings today, God asks for more than our surplus. He asks for our livelihood, because He is willing to give His son’s lifeblood: “But now once for all he has appeared at the end of the ages to take away sin by his sacrifice.”
Every vocation has its dry moments. They may last days, weeks, or years. The priest walks into an almost empty church, wondering if all his efforts to help people fall in love with Christ have failed. The married man or woman realizes that their spouse’s annoying tendencies haven’t gone away, while their charm does nothing but continually fade. A religious looks around at his or her community, charism, and apostolic work and sees the dysfunction and lack of results, and wonders if their life was given away for nothing. A single person sees families and consecrated religious, and asks if they’ve wasted the best years of their life, thinking of themselves as second-class citizens of the Church.
In these moments, two basic dispositions help us persevere. The first is gratitude. The second is a readiness for authentic, cheerful self-gift. “The jar of flour will not go empty, nor the cup of oil run dry.” In times of spiritual, emotional, or physical drought and famine, the Lord scrubs everything down to its bare essentials, and we realize what a miracle it is that we are alive and breathing, let alone faithful to our vocations. Now that the non-essentials are out of the picture, we can give simple and heartfelt thanks for the basics: existence, life, breath, grace, enduring faith, bare-bones fidelity.
The times when we no longer experience emotional or spiritual consolations are the purest opportunities for self-gift. In these moments we don’t love God and those closest to us for the feelings they give us, or the increase in status or other extrinsic rewards. We love because we love. Like the poor widow, we are now giving from our whole livelihood, recklessly abandoning ourselves into the arms of God and neighbor as Jesus did on the cross, with complete faith that God will still provide for us tomorrow even though we are giving away everything we have and are.
This is not a self-pitying suffering, or one that clamors for the attention of others. Like the widow dropping her coin in the treasury with a single poor echo amidst the sound of all those bigger, shinier coins– at these moments we too can say in sincere humility, “Lord, it isn’t much, but it’s all I have. You gave this to me, so now I can give you all I have and am. My little time, my scattered attention, my limited energy, my aching body, my material goods, and all my spiritual merits. They’re yours. I can’t imagine that any great good would come out of them, but I also know you multiplied loaves and fishes and turned water into wine, so if you unite these to your own self-gift, my sacrifice will be powerful and effective.”
This isn’t a cheerless, stoic self-resignation, though. The flour God gives us is sustenance, but the oil is healing, gladness, and joy. “God loves a cheerful giver.” We give with joy because we have received so much, and we know that more is waiting for us. The rich young man went away from Jesus with a downcast face. We move toward Jesus with the joy of the poor. We can easily miss this fact if we fixate too much on our poverty or our suffering. But if we hold fast to the conviction that, any moment, he will appear “to bring salvation to those who eagerly await him,” then we will never be drug down by our own poverty.
But what is Jesus doing when I wait on him? Is he just sitting idly in heaven? No, he is providing for us. He is interceding before the Father, showing him that one perfect act of love which merits all the graces we need in our vocations: the crucifixion. St. Therese said that her time in heaven wouldn’t be one of rest, but a period of doing good on earth. If this is true of Jesus’ saints, how much truer must it be of Christ himself? “The jar of flour shall not go empty, nor the jug of oil run dry.” He provides our daily sustenance and joy.
And we are proof of his fidelity to others. Like Elijah the prophet, or the widow in the temple, our cheerful fidelity to our vocation in dry times is a living prophecy to others. It speaks the truth of God’s faithful providence. When I see a young parent who works and takes care of their children persevering in their vocation and continuing to pray as best as they can, I am inspired to put more effort into my priestly ministry. Even though I can’t see as deeply as Jesus, I know that it costs them a great deal of energy to get up in the morning, take care of their kids, do their job, and pray. So I am spurred on to try to work as hard as they do, even if I fall short.
So persevere and give God your all. At the end of time you will stand before Jesus who, with glorified wounds in his hands and feet, will ask, “How much did it cost you?” And if, by God’s grace, you strove to be faithful, you can say, “It cost me my livelihood. But the jar of flour did not go empty, nor the jug of oil run dry.”