22 November 2010

All in or not at all

St Cecilia
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Ss. Domenico e Sisto, Roma

Anyone who lives in Rome understands what it means to take a risk. If the careening taxis don't mow you down at a crosswalk, the uneven cobblestones will break your ankles. If the herds of tourists on the 64 bus don't crush you to death, the summer heat will suck the life out of you. We all take risks just by walking out the door every morning. We calculate the costs of leaving home against the benefits of staying in bed, weighing all the options, teasing out the advantages, appraising the disadvantages, and then we choose. Most of the time, we get the equations right and manage to live another day. If this sort of cost/benefit analysis works for mere survival, can we use it in making choices about how we live our lives in Christ? That is, when it comes to deciding whether or not and to what degree we will follow after Christ, can we coolly, logically process all the available evidence before making a choice? Jesus' tale of the widow's mite says, no, we can't. We're all in or not at all.

Living with Christ is not a contest of minimizing risks, planning strategies, or prudently calculating cost/benefit. Living with Christ is a recklessly generous, open-handed, open-hearted, full-tilt run; a sanctifying contest of perseverance and strength, a contest played with everything you've got and all that you are. If we pick and choose which portions of ourselves we will and won't give to Christ, then we cannot claim a prize even if we finish the race. If all that you are, if all of who you are didn't compete, then who exactly crossed the finish line? The widow knows who she is—a child of God the Father. She sacrifices her entire livelihood; she gives wholly, fully everything she has: two mites, two small coins. The wealthy gave of their surplus, what was left over after the cost/benefit calculations had been made. She gave out of her poverty, out of what she didn't have to give. Of her sacrifice, Jesus says, “. . .this poor widow put in more than all the rest.” The “more” that she gives is not calculable by weight or by an exchange value. How can trust in God be measured? How do we weigh hope? By giving all that she has and all that she is, the widow throws herself recklessly—ignorant of risk, despite the threat of failure—she throws herself into the hands of God and trusts Him to provide. 

The moment you and I are equal to this sacrifice, we are well and fully committed to living our lives following after Christ. We are either all in or not at all. Christ himself did nothing less for us.

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  1. Is the widow ignorant of the risks or cognizant of them but of the conviction that she owes her "all" just the same?

    And how does this square with your earlier assertion that the intrinsic moral evil of introducing a contraceptive device into the marital act could be morally required to prevent disease transmission to the healthy spouse and any child that would be conceived? Why is it "all in" for the widow with her mite but the married couple could legitimately opt out of the marital vocation to which God called them because it requires their all?

    I'm not trying to be a thorn in the flesh here, but I perceive an inconsistency and because I respect you I would like to understand how you're combining those convictions.

  2. Jana, I don't see any inconsistencies in principles here.

    We Catholics are all about upholding an ideal even when we know that we will fall far short of the ideal. Put another way: that fact that we will fall short of an ideal is no reason to alter the ideal.

    The ideal of marriage you've presented is perfectly Catholic. But each of us is confronted with unique circumstances that have to be addressed existentially--given our gifts, shortcomings, etc. Jesus is praising the widow b/c she's not holding back; she's not calculating cost/benefit. Her sacrifices are greater than the those of the wealthy precisely b/c she has the most to lose in relation to what she has. They give out of what's left over, thus risking nothing in material terms. She risks it all in material terms. They are gambling everything in spiritual terms; she's absolutely committed in spiritual terms, gambling nothing.

    The widow is our ideal.

  3. Anonymous9:26 AM

    Money doesn't fall from heaven. If God could be relied on to supply our material needs then there would be no poor people because God would provide for them. I'd like to know the rest of the story about the widow. How did the rest of her life turn out? Did she have to beg to provide for her needs, making her a burden on others? Did God miraculously care for her for the rest of her life?