It's not how much we give. It's how much it costs us.
I hate pennies. I have no idea why we still have them. I checked out a recent report from the Treasury Department that stated it costs almost 2 cents to make a penny, which makes it sound all the more ridiculous that we still use them. I was in Gristedes the other day and the clerk was very annoyed when an elderly customer gave her 27 pennies to round out the cost of his purchase. One pile became two as she counted each one with her finger, then pushed them aside into a new pile. As she was doing that, someone impatiently threw a dollar onto the counter for something and then immediately left. You should have seen the clerk’s super annoyed face. And then when my turn came, my purchase was for $3.01 and of course she would not let me go with just the three dollars. I had to give her four dollar bills, and I got 99 cents in change, including 4 useless pennies!
Sometimes when I get pennies, I just throw them on the ground in the parking lot, thinking that they will bring some kid good luck if he finds one. At least that’s what my mama used to tell me if I found a penny. I guess if I were a kid today, I wouldn’t stoop down unless it was at least a $5 bill. I never think of a poor woman like the one in the Gospel, who sounds like she could use a few pennies. Maybe that’s because one time when I was racing down the sidewalk and a street person asked for money, I reached into my pocket and gave him whatever change I had, and he yelled after me that I should be able to give him more than pennies.
He was right, of course. My excuse was that I was in a rush, but the truth was that what I gave him didn’t really cost me a thing in money, or in time. The change I threw at him was a mere annoyance in my pocket, and giving it away to him was like getting rid of my garbage.
A wise man once told me that the measure of our generosity is not how much we give, but in how much it costs us.
The Gospel is about being generous, and it gives two examples.
How not to be generous. I'm not sure I like talking about this, especially since Jesus gives the example of a priest prancing around in his robes and expecting honors for it. It’s about how some of us expect others to be generous to us—with their praise, their time, their deference and maybe a dinner at a five star restaurant. He points to self-important priests as an example of how not to be a good Christian, and for me of course that cuts a little bit too close to home.
How to be generous. Jesus tells us about the widow who gives her last twenty dollars in the collection while, I guess, the priest is prancing about in his robes. And maybe you don’t want me to talk about that, since it might cut to close to home for you. I mean the collection basket is waiting for you at the end of this homily and you might already have been thinking that you can get away with flinging in some of that annoying change you have in your pocket.
So, to put it simply, the message of the Gospel is be generous, my brothers and sisters, and put twenty dollars into the collection basket when it comes around. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Excuse me, I meant forty dollars. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
You know how I feel, sometimes? Sometimes I feel a little hypocritical. I feel a little hypocritical when I'm up here giving a homily in my robes telling everybody that we've got to go out of here and do great things, to really be good and generous, and then I go out of here and feel like I've just done a good thing because I told everybody to do good things. Like that's enough, I've done my part.
But then a Gospel like the one today comes along and it kind of slaps me in the face. Talking is nothing, Jesus says to me, so stop prancing around in your robes, and get to work doing some real good. And he's right.
But you know what? He's not just talking to me, I mean, I hate to share the blame with you all, but he's talking to all of us. Do good, get out there and do some real good, even after you've given your forty dollars into the collection basket, get out there and do some real good. Be generous. I mean, really generous.
Like hanging on a cross, which is a little harder than coming to church on a Sunday and sitting patiently as I blah blah blah with a lot of hot air. Be generous, says Jesus, and then he shows what he means: by going out of his way to be with people no one else wanted to be with; by standing up for people and principles when no one else had the courage to do so; by liberating people who were captives of others and of their own hearts; and by dying, literally dying, for nothing you could see or touch or feel or taste or hear---for the most absurd thing, for love. He showed us that really being generous means giving up everything, absolutely every little thing, your self, for love.
For love. What's that? What's love? I could give you a long-winded homily on love, but I won't. But I will tell you what it looks like, as I watched a daughter last week with her 97 year old mother in a nursing home, trying to get her to eat some food. She has been traveling from Manhattan to Long Island every day for the last year---giving up her job and all her own personal needs so that her mama will know that she is not alone in the waning days of her life.
How are you affording it, I asked?
Well, she has cashed in her pension, and she has enough to get by until February. And you know what? Her mama is not always fun to be with-- she can be cranky, nasty to her, even cursing at her when she is particularly upset. But she is there every single day, just as her mama was there with her through all her growing years when she was a whiny, wingy, whimpering, wearying little child.
Love is patient, love is kind, love is never jealous, boastful, rude or selfish; it is always ready to excuse, trust, hope, and endure...whatever. Real loving is the simplest, and the most difficult thing to do. It’s not pitching pennies out of your surplus as you go rushing by. It’s your last forty dollars, I mean your job and your 401K: my friend with her mother, every day in the nursing home, giving every bit of what little she has. That's what love looks like.
A wise man once told me that the measure of our Christian generosity is not in how much we give, but in how much it costs us.
I don't know if I'm that much of a Christian. Are you?