08 November 2015

Pray Like the Widow Gives

32nd Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA

What if instead of teaching us about how to give alms, the story of the Widow's Mite teaches us something about prayer? We know the lesson of the widow who gives her last two pennies to the temple. Jesus pretty much tells us the moral of the story outright: the widow has given much, much more than all the wealthy alms-givers b/c the wealthy “have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.” Who sacrifices more? Who is made holier in giving away what they have? The Widow, of course. However, what if we think of the two coins she gives to the temple as prayers given to God? And what if we think of the thousands and millions of coins given by the wealthy as their prayers to God? The moral of the story doesn't change. Because the Widow prayed all she had to pray in loving sacrifice, her prayers far outweigh the thousands and millions of prayers offered out of surplus by the wealthy. They banked their graces, save them up, and now they expect a dividend, a cash-out. The Widow gives herself totally to pray, throws herself completely on the mercy of God's providence. When we pray well, we pray with everything we have, everything we are, holding nothing back for later, trusting (knowing) that God will provide.

So, how does this all work? First, the first beneficiary of prayer is the pray-er, the one praying. Even if you are praying for someone else, you benefit first b/c God's response to your prayer conditions you to better receive His graces. Second, the whole point of prayer is make it possible for you to better receive God's graces. Our prayers do not and cannot change God. They can and do change us. Third, what we put into prayer is made holy (i.e., sacrificed) and given back to God. If I put nothing more than my surplus time and energy into prayer, then I am making holy only what's left over of my time and energy. I spend most of my time and my energy on me. And then I give the leftovers to God. However, if I put everything I have and everything I am into my prayer, then everything I have and everything I am is made holy in sacrifice. Even one small prayer, prayed with my whole livelihood is worth more than a thousand or a million prayers prayed as leftovers. The logic is inescapable: if I am the first beneficiary of my prayers, and I put everything I have and am into my prayer – no matter how small – then my sacrifice can outweigh the leftovered prayers of millions!

Now, of course, the goal here isn't to Win the Prayer Race, or Out-pray the Spiritually Wealthy. The goal is to improve my prayer life so that I might grow closer to Christ, becoming more and more like him. To be more like Christ we must pray like Christ. How did Christ pray? Often and intensely. In fact, his whole life was a single prayer, one thirty-three year long prayer of sacrifice. From the moment of his conception in Mary's virginal womb to his ascension into heaven, Christ offered his life and death as an on-going sacrifice. Sure, his sacrifice culminated on the cross, and the effects of his sacrifice boomed out into the world at his resurrection, but every step, every breath, every act he performed while he was among us was a prayer. Everything he had, everything he was – wholly given over to the Father as a witness to His mercy. If we will pray like Christ, in order to become more like him, we will make every step, every breath, every act, thought, word, everything, a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, bearing open and courageous witness to the Good News that he lived and died to bring us. 
Does this sound like an enormous task to you? Well, it is. . .and it isn't. If you see your work in Christ as a burden or a duty or as something to just get done so you can get on with all the stuff you really want to do, then bearing witness to God's mercy will be an enormous task. You will likely store up your graces and pray your leftovers. Who's hurt by your Leftover Prayer Life? You are! You might be giving huge amounts of time, treasure, and talent to the Church. . .but praying out of your leftovers. Thousands could be benefiting from your material generosity. . .but you could be starving to death spiritually b/c you give God your surplus time and energy in prayer. However, if you see your work in Christ as a means of working out your holiness, as a way to grow into his likeness, then bearing witness to the Father's mercy will be anything but a burden; it will be a joy, a bonus. You will immediately give away (sacrifice) your God-given graces and pray with everything you have and are, and soon find yourself swimming in blessings. Remember: the more you share God's gifts to you, the more gifts He gives you to share. Holiness is polished into us by the act of exchanging of gifts: from God → me → you, from you → me → God, and so on. Each exchange shines our perfection a little brighter. 
When you leave here tonight, take some time to consider your prayer life. Not just which prayers you pray, or how long you spend in prayer. Consider the quality of the time and energy you devote to prayer. Ask yourself: am I like the wealthy who pray a lot out of my leftover time and energy, or am I like the poor widow who prays a little but prays her entire livelihood every time? If your prayer life is dull, rusted, kinda broken down, consider a refurbishment: for a couple of months limit your prayers to giving God thanks and praise for who and what you already have in your life. Don't ask for anything. Just say “thank you” for what you've got. If you have stopped praying alone with God altogether. . .well, you may now know why nothing is working out for you and why everything seems to be so pointless. Reintroduce yourself to the Father and welcome Him back into your life. Remember: it's not the size or shape of the prayer but what you put into it that tips the scale. You don't have to give a room to despair, anger, disappointment, or any other dark spirit. Turn them over to God in prayer, and let Him make them holy. 
The Widow gives everything she has. And everything she has – two small coins – outweighs the alms of millions. Her enormous sacrifice deepens her humility and brings her closer to God. In her poverty and in ours, where would we rather be?

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Our faith is not an investment. . .

NB. A Vintage Fr. Philip Homily from 2006 on the widow's mite. . .

34th Week OT(M)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory, Irving, TX

When mixing the dough for baking bread the proportion of water to flour you use really matters to the result. The same is true for mixing concrete—too much water or too little water threatens the stability and strength of your art—whether you intend walk on it or spread jam on it. We also use the notion of proportion in our ethical decisions as well: ratio of mercy to justice; whether or not this or that reason tilts the scales for or against making a choice. Think about all those moments in your life when you weigh portions in relation to one another and then pick out what you conclude to be the useful, the good, the beautiful, and the desirable and leave behind what you conclude to be the unworkable, the ugly, the harmful, and the just plain wrong. I would daresay that we humans are creatures of chance (we take risks), planning (we take control), and proportion (we weigh options). Is this sort of calculation—ethical, financial, spiritual—a gospel habit, a Christian virtue?

Jesus praises the widow in this gospel b/c she does not risk, plan, or weigh proportionate options when she drops her two coins into the collection box. She doesn’t offer a reasonable amount, a prudent portion given her income,. Nor does she weigh benefit against cost. She offers her whole livelihood. Jesus says, “I tell you truly, this poor widow put in more than all the rest.” How does Jesus reach this obviously erroneous conclusion? The widow gives freely, completely, without reservation out of her poverty, her lack. The others give of their surplus wealth. She has acquired the virtue—the good habit—of magnanimous sacrifice. The virtue that Jesus himself will practice by dying gratuitously on the cross at Golgotha.

We know the Scandal of the Passion and the Cross: Christ our King is whipped, ridiculed, and executed as a criminal by the Roman and Jewish authorities. This is a scandal because he has claimed again and again to be the Christ, the Anointed One of God, one who possesses divine power to heal, heavenly authority over demons, and the prestige of being the only Son of God. Power never yields to weakness. Authority never abdicates its place of honor, its elevated status.

There is another scandal here as well: the Scandal of Excessive Generosity. For creation to be redeemed, for all of God’s creation to be brought back into right relationship with its Creator, nothing more is strictly required than that the Creator bring us back. A simple act of divine will. SNAP! And we are back right where we were in Eden. We could skip all of this “growing in perfection” business. In other words, we were salvageable as creatures of a loving Creator through a more prudent, a more calculated and less risky means: divine fiat. Instead, we are made righteous, made “children of the light” through the messy, wasteful, and ultimately ugly sacrifice of the Father’s only Son on the cross. For the practical among us, for reasonable souls, the planners and the risk-takers, this choice, this plan of salvation though suffering and death is “too much,” excessive and strictly unnecessary. Why not save us out of the surplus of divine wealth?

Jesus watches a widow drop two coins in the collection box, but in her he sees a kindred soul: one who gives not just a large portion of her wealth, not a calculated percentage of her leftover income but one who gives everything she has, her whole livelihood. And he sees in this widow a vision of his own sacrifice on the cross, his own excessively generous, needlessly gratuitous offering of body and blood for the reconciliation of creation to its Creator. It would have been more practical to leave Christ among us! To have skipped his suffering and death! But then, how would our Father have shown us His abundant love? His exceeding compassion?

Our faith is not an investment in risk-taking, planning, or prudently calculating cost/benefit. Our faith is a wildly generous, open-handed, open-hearted, full-throttled run, a redemptive marathon sprinted behind our Chosen Victim. We cannot give a portion of ourselves, a piece of our surplus wealth. We must give our whole livelihood, everything, all of it. . .nothing less was given for us.


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