Law Of The Gift – Fr. Gary Pennings

Fr. Gary Pennings’ Homily November 7, 2021

“Our opening prayer today said, almighty and merciful God graciously keep from us all adversity.’ We’re asking God to prevent trial and tribulation from coming into our life. Why? So that unhindered in mind and body, so we’re not distracted by all that stuff, we may pursue in freedom of heart the things that are his, the things of God. We all pray that we not have to face adversity, but so often it seems to find us anyway. The readings today are about two widows and they’re in adverse times. Remember that in the Biblical times, it was not good to be a widow. It’s probably never good to be a widow, but it certainly wasn’t then. They were in a dire situation. It was a very paternal society. Women depended on a husband often for support or some kind of family and if left alone there were no public health programs or food stamps or anything like that. They were in difficult situation. There was no one to rely on for help. In the first reading today from the seventeenth chapter of first Kings, we hear about Elijah and a widow. Now you have to have a little background here, Elijah was a prophet of God and he went to King Ahab, Ahab was the seventh king of Israel in the Northern Kingdom, and Ahab married Jezebel, a pagan woman, not a Jew and she convinced him to turn away from the God of Israel and to start worshipping Baal, a pagan God. So Elijah the prophet goes and warns Ahab and he tells them that God will send a great drought, a great famine upon the land. Now when you hear this, you have to keep in mind God’s not being arbitrary or snooty or kind of being finicky, in the scriptures what they see as punishments from God are really messages that we can glean that when you turn from God bad things happen. When you turn from God bad things happen. When you turn from God things are gonna dry up in your life. When you reject God’s love, you can expect tragedy. When you embrace evil, sooner or later, bad things happen. That’s the message of the scriptures. Now Elijah also suffers though from this drought. He lives in that land and so he too is suffering. There’s no food. There’s nothing to eat, little water, but the Lord tells him, ‘Go to Zarephath to this town and there will be a widow there. I’ve given my grace to her. I’ve instructed her to help you.’ and so Elijah goes to this non-Jewish city and he finds this widow and her son. She’s out collecting branches to make a little fire. She’s getting ready to prepare this last meal. She’s got a little flower, a little oil, just enough for one more meal and Elijah sees her and ask her to bring him a little water and then he has the audacity to ask her to make him a cake, maybe more like a loaf of bread and she says, ‘I don’t have anything left. All I’ve got is for one meal. My son and I are gonna eat and then we’ll die because we have nothing left. That’s it.’ and he tells her, ‘No, you go and you go ahead and make that bread and there will be flour enough and there will be oil enough. Your jar and your jug will not run dry. God will provide.’ He invites her to faith and so she does it. She could have said, ‘No, forget it. There’s not enough for all of us. Leave me alone. Get out of here.’ but she didn’t. God had touched her heart. His grace had affected her. All three lived off that jar and off that jug for the next year until the rains came again.

In the Gospel we hear another story about a widow. This time Jesus is in the Temple right just a few days before his crucifixion. He’s looking around at all the activity in the Temple Courts and he comments about the scribes, how they’re always about show. They have to have their tassels longer than anybody else. They have to wear these long robes. They have to put on this image, but their hearts are not in the right place. They crave honor, but yet they take advantage of people. They take advantage of poor widows for their own benefit. They consume others to bolster their own egos and Jesus said they will be severely condemned.

Now in the Temple area there’s all these little, they call them trumpets, they look like widened pipes like pipes with a wide top where you could drop coins or you could drop money in. They go down into some kind of safe or money box and often there were several of them for different purposes kinda like an early version of a collection and the people were invited to make donations there for the work of the temple to help supply the temple and the needs and Jesus observed many wealthy people coming and putting large sums of money into these trumpets, into the treasury and then he sees this widow, this poor widow, she comes and she just has a few coins, probably worth like a couple cents. It’s all she’s got, that’s it. That’s the last money she’s got and she just drops it in there and Jesus calls the disciples and says, ‘See this poor widow? She’s given more than all the rest.’ They gave from their excess after everything was okay and they were secure and they had all their things in place they gave God what was leftover and even though they were big sums, they knew they were secure, but she didn’t. That’s all she had. She trusted completely in God. She put her life in His hands and she gave all that she had. She dropped in her last penny. It was minuscule, but she depended on God. She trusted in Him.

What are we to glean from these two stories of these widows? Well there’s several homilies you could preach. You could preach one on generosity I guess. You could certainly preach one on stewardship, on giving God not the leftovers, but the first and the best, but you could also preach one on faith, on trusting in God and letting God’s grace take hold of us and letting God’s grace take hold of us and then letting it guide our actions. At the darkest times of life when things looked very dire these two widows trusted in God. They put everything in God’s hands. Now both widows would have had good reason to say no, no to charity. In Zarephath, that woman it was her last meal. The widow at the Temple it was her last penny, but they did the opposite. They did the opposite. They were open to what God laid before them. They turned out of themselves. They turned to charity and generosity rather than being protective and turning in. Crisis often causes us to put up a wall, to put up our defenses, to turn in on ourselves, to hunker down, to go into survival mode, but faith and the help of God’s grace can help us do just the opposite. We can turn out of ourselves. We can reach out to others. We can look as doors are being closed in our lives we can look for what windows or what other doors are being opened. As the opportunities that we were depending on close, we can look for the opportunities that God is creating in the midst of our crisis. We can see new kinds of opportunities, to be open to the people and the situations that the Lord puts in our path, to give from our poverty, our brokenness and to let God work from it, to move from a defensive posture to one of surrender to His will.

Many years ago back in the early 90’s I was only in my early 30’s. I don’t want to go into all the details, but I really hit the bottom in my life. I hit a point in my life where I didn’t think it could get much worse and I thought it was the worst day of my life. I remember the day it was July 7th because it was my parents’ wedding anniversary and I thought, this is it. It was horrible and tragic and the only thing worse wasif I was to die, but it didn’t take long before I realized that it wasn’t the worst day of my life. Matter of fact, it was the best day of my life because it was a day that I finally surrendered to God and said, ‘I am not going to try to take control of all these things. I can’t do it.’ and I turned my life over to Him. I let Him be in control. In the midst of my tragedy and trial and pain I surrendered. I said, ‘It’s in Your hands. Your will be done.’ and now I look back at the day as the best, it was the turning point of my life when I let God, I got out of His way and I let Him work in my life and it took that moment of spiritual poverty, it took that moment of being down and out, it took that moment of hitting bottom, it took that moment of tragedy and crisis to realize that I had to depend on Him.

The Second Vatican Council in a document they wrote called, Gaudiam Et Spes, says, ‘The human being who is the only creature on Earth that God willed for itself. The human being can not attain its full identity except through a disinterested gift of self, of giving yourself away, of letting God use you. One of the hallmarks of St. John Paul II’s teaching was what has been called the Law of the Gift. He spoke about it in many different ways. It’s the paradox that the more of ourselves that we give away, that we let go of, the fuller we become. I use this Law of the Gift when I give a wedding homily often as I hand the couple  crucifix as I remind them that they’re most fully human, they’re most fully what they were meant to be when they give themselves away because it’s then that they imitate Jesus on the cross most fully. Both of these widows in today’s Gospel, they witnessed to this Law of the Gift. They didn’t turn in and hunker down, no they gave themselves away. They offered it all to God. Some of you may be in crisis right now. You may feel that you have hit bottom. You might feel that you are broke either materially or spiritually. You might look at this world and say that it’s going to Hell in a handbasket, but don’t despair. Don’t despair and don’t turn in on yourself. Don’t take a defensive isolating posture. Seek God’s help to do the opposite, to turn out of yourself. When you see all those doors of opportunity close, look at the ones God’s opening in the midst of your crises. Ask God to help you practice the Law of the Gift, to be open to the people in the situation that God places in your life, to let go of your own definitions of how things should be and let God in your present struggle show you yet another way. Crisis, hitting bottom at first might seem very dire, almost hopeless, but God can make something great out of it. It can actually be a moment of grace. It can be a moment of great opportunity. We just need to practice the Law of the Gift. We have to get out of His way and let Him open the doors that we might not at first see. We just need to let Him do His thing and that day that might think right now might be the worst day of our life, tomorrow, next week we might look back and realize it was the best day because it was the day you let God take over. It was the day you got out of His way.”