I can't think of a Scripture passage more misunderstood than Sunday's Gospel (Mark 12:38-44). Even those who chose the first reading (I Kings 17:10-16) probably did so because they misinterpreted the Gospel.

I presume each of us has heard this widow's mite passage, proclaimed by pastors and finance committee chairpersons who encourage us to increase our weekly donation or give to some special parish fund.

The irony is that if they understood what Jesus actually thinks about the widow's contribution, they would have avoided this particular example like bankruptcy.

Widow's example

Jesus never praises the woman for what she does. Listen carefully to what He says: "Calling His disciples to Himself, He said to them,...'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.'"

He's simply pointing out something His followers might have overlooked. Though this person gave very little, because of her financial situation, she gave everything she had.

If Jesus isn't praising the widow for her generosity, why does He single her out? It's because of what He says immediately before the widow comes on the scene: "Beware of the scribes, who like to go around in long robes, and accept greetings in the marketplace, seats of honor in synagogues and places of honor at banquets. They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext, recite lengthy prayers. They will receive a severe condemnation."

When we couple the widow's action with Jesus' attack on religious leaders who "devour the houses of widows," we realize He's pointing to the woman and saying, "I rest my case!"

Obviously, these well-fed, well-clothed and well-honored individuals, under the pretext of "I'll say one for you," have given this poor widow the impression that she's obligated to support their sumptuous lifestyle, even to the point of destroying herself.

Jesus' message is that those leaders should be taking care of her, not vice versa. "What a shame," He's telling His followers, "that some leaders use religion as a cover for selfishly taking, instead of a stimulus for generously giving."

Once we understand the message Mark is actually trying to convey, we're forced to look at the other two readings for Sunday from a different perspective.

Although Elijah, in the first reading, asks the widow of Zarephath for a super act of generosity, he's also super-generous to her: "She was able to eat for a year...."

In a parallel way, the author of Sunday's second reading (Hebrews 9:24-28) reminds us of Jesus' generosity. He sacrificed Himself first "to take away sin," then "to bring salvation to those who eagerly await Him." Nothing should stop us from imitating such generosity toward others.

Calcutta example

Years ago, I read a Life magazine article on Mother Teresa of Calcutta. The reporter was interviewing one of the sisters working in the community's house for the dying.

The nun was scrubbing the floor as she answered the interviewer. At one point, she looked up and said, "Why do you keep asking me these questions when you can see all the work that needs to be done here? Why don't you put down your pen and notebook, and help me?"

Our Sunday authors agree: True generosity always leads us to give ourselves to others, even if we get sidetracked at times by the heretical belief that giving to religion is more important than giving to people.