The Widow’s Mite, Unknown, 6th Century, St. Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy.
[Jesus said] “Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more
than all the other contributors to the treasury….” Mark 12:43
Here we have another famous scene from the gospels, the widow’s mite. Well, I wonder if this is just about the only time we ever come across the word “mite”, though sometimes I suppose we refer to a small child as a “little mite”. Anyway, I looked it up. The early English translations of the Greek New Testament were taken not from the Greek originals, but from St. Jerome’s translation of the Greek into Latin, the version called the Vulgate, in use all over western Europe at that time. The Latin translation from the Greek for the small coin ( λεπτόν, or lepton) is minutum. In the Middle Ages there was a small Flemish coin called a mite, which, because of much trade between England and the Low Countries, could well have been in widespread use in England. So it meant a very small amount of money. Hence the shock of Jesus’ observation that the widow had put in more than the huge donations from the wealthy worshippers in the Temple. As Jesus says, they gave from their wealth and would not miss it, but she gave from her poverty, not really being able to afford it, and truly missed it. In other words, she was more faithful to God’s teachings to support those in need.
We are still in the last chapters of Mark’s gospel here, with Jesus having made his last journey to Jerusalem where he will meet his greatest challenge. Making observations such as this in today’s gospel would clearly not have been welcome to the ears of those in charge of the Temple. It’s almost as if Jesus were laying the foundations of the dread events soon to engulf him. But clearly he is making an important point here, even if not very welcome, frankly, to any of us even today. Remember last week’s gospel? Love God, neighbor and self. Today’s gospel is a clear demonstration of that teaching in practice. This poor widow shows above all the others that she is sacrificing her worldly wealth, all two mites of it, to help others. Which one of us, I wonder, could that observation apply to? Hopefully many, but from a personal point of view, I have a ways to go to match the poor widow.
So, as ever, there is a lesson and a challenge in today’s readings. The first reading holds the identical teaching, again involving a poor widow who is generous beyond her means. Does it mean God hopes that each of us would do the same? Clearly yes. What would be the wriggle teaching to soften the blow? Well, you could say Jesus’ teaching is once more a counsel of perfection. In a perfect world, this is what we would all do. The current standing of world generosity, based on research done by the Gallup organization, suggests that, calculating the percentage of the population actually donating, the USA is the second most generous in the world. But the first is Myanmar, not known at all for its wealth! It is almost as if today’s gospel is being enacted in non-Christian Myanmar! That means each of us can do better, I suspect, and today’s gospel is the clarion call to do it. Opening up wallets and purses a little bit more is clearly what God wants us to do, and so we – I – should. By the way, Catholics appear to be less generous than other Christian churches, which is an unfortunate thing to have to say.
Dearest 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 save that of knowing that I do your will, O God. The prayer of St. Ignatius Loyola, Founder of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits. Those entering religious life give up everything!
St. Ignatius of Loyola, Rubens, Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, California, USA.
One final word about this day, November 11. At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, exactly 100 years ago today, the catastrophe known as the Great War, or the First World War, came to an end. Many of us will be at Mass at that time. Those who died in that terrible conflict gave much more than a mite; they gave their lives, each fighting for what they believed would be a better world. We should remember them all in our prayers today, the soldiers and the civilians caught up in the battlegrounds and the diseases which took millions of lives. May they all rest in peace, and may we never, ever, see such slaughter again.