“It is the Lord who gives bread to the hungry, the Lord who loves the just, who protects the stranger, who upholds the widow and orphan.” The psalms, and indeed the whole of the Old Testament, celebrate the God who is revealed in his loving kindness. This is the selfless generosity of a God who called Israel to himself, not because they were greatest of nations but because he loved them. So it is with us. All that we are is the gift of his grace.
If such generosity has called us into being, then generosity of spirit must become the hallmark of our faith.
Elijah’s encounter with the widow of Sidon, struggling to feed her son in time of famine, emphasises the trust at the heart of generosity. Elijah approached the foreign town of Sidon as an outsider. In a time of famine the instinct of self-preservation generally excludes all save the closest familiar circle. Despite this, Elijah appealed to a generosity far beyond normal expectation. The woman was about to feed the last of her dwindling oil and flour to her son, while the prophet continued to call upon her hospitality: “Do not be afraid, go and do as you have said; but first make a little scone and bring it to me, and then make some for yourself and your son.”
At the heart of the narrative is the trust to which Elijah summoned the woman. Our natural instinct is to trust in ourselves. Elijah invited the woman to reach beyond her poverty, to trust in what the Lord would provide: “Jar of meal shall not be spent, jug of oil shall not be emptied, before the day when the Lord sends rain on the face of the earth.”
This simple tale of heroic hospitality illustrates a fundamental truth of the Christian life. As the living members of Christ’s Body we are called to a generosity of spirit that lies beyond our sinful nature. We are called to give with no hope of return, to forgive despite the inevitable wounds that life brings, to love as Christ has loved us. While our hearts warm to the beauty of this calling, the practicalities of daily life quickly reveal our limited resources. As the woman realised that her supplies were insufficient for her family, let alone a visiting stranger, so we must face the poverty of our good intentions. As she trusted in Elijah’s God, so we entrust our impoverished spirits to the Lord.
Mark’s Gospel contrasts the selfishness that gathers everything to itself with the generosity of a poverty that knows only how to give. Jesus began with the sterility of the scribes, who gave nothing of themselves, living only for the approbation that fed their pride. “These are the men who swallow the property of widows while making a show of lengthy prayers. The more severe will be the sentence they receive.”
This ringing condemnation was followed by the observations of Jesus concerning donations to the Temple treasury.
The rich were able to make generous contributions from their excess. In reality it cost them nothing. The poor widow, from the little she had, put in everything she possessed, all she had to live on.
Consciously or unconsciously, we tend to place limits on the gift of ourselves. In calling us to faith, Christ invites us to entrust our poverty to him. He alone enables a generosity of spirit beyond our imagining.