1 Kgs 17:10-16
Ps 146:7, 8-9, 9-10
Next semester, I am teaching a class on Modern Catholic Social Teaching. It is the first time I have ever taught the class and so right now, every chance I get, I am reading in the field, trying to figure out how to structure the syllabus. When crafting a syllabus, I find that one of the most important questions I need to ask myself is what I expect the students to get out of the class. For this class, I think what I want the students to get is a sense of how radical the gospel is, how counter-cultural it is, and how much is demanded of those who want to follow Christ.
This week’s gospel provides an example of the radical gospel I want my students to get acquainted with. First, Jesus denounces hypocrisy, specifically with regard to those who “devour the house of widows and, as a pretext recite lengthy prayers.” One is reminded here of the prophet Amos who decried the hypocritical worship of the Northern Kingdom while they simultaneously abused the poor. For Amos and for Jesus, true religion must be accompanied by true justice.
But then the gospel reading should start to make us uncomfortable. Jesus, sitting outside the treasury, observes those making their tithes. The wealthy put in large sums, but then a widow comes and puts in a few cents. Jesus tells his disciples,
“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.”
When I was teaching a class on marriage and family ethics this summer, I introduced my students to the practice of tithing, and specifically to Ron Sider’s graduated tithe. The basic idea is that you set a base salary that covers your basic needs and then you increase the percentage of your giving for money that you make about your base salary. One way to do this is to give an extra 5% for every $10,000 you earn above your base salary. With the graduated tithe, eventually you could be giving away 100% of your salary above a certain point beyond your base income, assuming you make enough.
The beauty of the graduated tithe is that it encourages you to give in such a way that you feel it, not just out of your abundance. My students, however, uniformly hated it. “Jesus doesn’t want us to be poor,” one student complained (to which I always want to respond, “prove it!”). Another student reasoned, “Giving is personal. You should definitely give something but I think it should be up to each individual to decide how much to give.” The graduated tithe struck this student as too rigid (though Sider himself admits that it is flexible. For example, his base income changed when his kids got to high school and he decided to send them to a private Christian school). Perhaps my least favorite response: “If Jesus wanted us to give all our money away, why should we work so hard to get and education and a job?”
Now, I am not insisting that we all embrace the graduated tithe, but what strikes me is how scary this method of giving looked to my students . . . and still looks to me. Yet what we don’t find scary somehow are the gospels and the teachings of Jesus who tells us to sell all that we have and give it to the poor. In our gospel for this week, Jesus doesn’t rebuke the woman for her financial imprudence. He doesn’t stop her from giving all that she had. He doesn’t send her away with twice as much as she came with. He commends her for giving it all away. He commends her for her vulnerability, for her ability to really sacrifice. This is scary. I daresay it is scarier than the graduated tithe.
However, it is possible to give until it hurts. It is possible for our financial giving to be a real sacrifice. And this sacrifice of wealth is just one dimension of what Jesus challenges his followers to take on in the gospels. And this is what I want my students to get from my class. I want them to get that following Christ means more than putting a $20 bill in the collection basket every other Sunday. I want them to get that following Christ means more than just voting for the candidate that supports policies that are favorable to the poor. I want them to get that following Christ means more than just a few hours of service a month. Following Christ is supposed to be radical. Following Christ is supposed to set us apart (which is literally what the word “holy” means). Following Christ is supposed to, at least on occasion, hurt. This is a big part (though by no means all) of what Catholic Social Teaching is all about.