[Homily based on:1 King 17:10-16; Mark 12: 41-44]
Part of the arsenal of prayers of those who study or have studied at the Ateneo is St. Ignatius’ “Prayer for Generosity.” Many of you know the prayer by heart, “Lord, teach me to be generous…”
I think our reading from the Book of Kings (1 Kings 17:10-16) and our Gospel (Mk 22:41-44) this morning are about generosity. And if you have ever prayed to God to teach you to be generous, in these readings he is teaching just that.
“Lord, teach me to be generous…” He teaches us with the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath. He teaches us with the story of the Widow’s Mite.
Recently I was at the All Ateneo Alumni Convention in the United States where I had opportunity to speak about the various projects of the ADDU. I spoke of our ongoing construction projects, of our need eventually to build a new set of buildings in Matina for our senior high school, and of our ongoing need for scholarships. In the context of the latter I spoke about our A-1 Scholarship Drive, in which we ask people to share one peso a day to support our scholars. Over and over again, I have asked people to help – big or small. The truth is: only a few respond. Most do not. Even where the drive is designed to allow giving so that it doesn’t even hurt, only some respond. Most do not. There is a saying, “Give until it hurts.” Many people don’t give, even when it doesn’t hurt.
I do not mean to turn this homily into a fundraising session. I wish only to speak from my own experience to underscore the importance of the prayer, “Lord, teach me to be generous…” Generosity is not just an idea, it is a virtue. As a virtue, it is acquired; it is the result of many little decisions. I decide not to be selfish. I decide not to be stingy. I decide not to put my welfare before the welfare of others. And so do I decide in my life to be generous. Martin Luther King once said, “Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.” Many people in life are monumentally insensitive. When they’re chattering, giggling and laughing in a movie house and disturbing other people, they don’t care. When they’re taking all the food and leaving nothing for others, they don’t notice. When they leave all the work for others to do, they actually think they’re wise. It is in this context that one must pray, “Lord, teach me to be generous…”
Many people are generous in a way that is very selfish. That may sound like a contradiction, because generosity and selfishness are contradictory. But many give in order to be praised for giving; many give in order to splash in the newspapers, or to be acclaimed in circles of professional charities, NGOs and philanthropists. Worse, many give in order to exact a return – in order to put a politician in my debt, in order to make sure that my business can continue to flourish, in order to make sure that my corruption is not exposed. These persons never let their beneficiaries forget that they are the donors. I once was told in the face: “Do not forget: I am the donor! When I call you, you come! When I tell you to do this, you do it!” “I am the donor: these are the values I have; you must have them as well; otherwise, you are not worthy of my generosity.” Here, the donation is not an act of generosity; it is an act of power. Against this, the saying of an unknown sage is inspiring: “A generous person forgets what he gives, and remembers only what he receives. Learn, earn, return. These are the three phases of life.” You don’t have to be a Christian to be generous. You simply have to be a good human being. The Roman stoic philosopher, Seneca, said: “Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for generosity.”
But in our Christian context, we pray, “Lord, teach me to be generous…” He teaches generosity in the story of the widow of Zaraphath who alone in life had to take care of her son. When Elijah asks her for water, she gives it to him. When Elijah asks her for some cakes, she says she has only enough flour for the meal with her son that she is preparing. Because of the famine, it will be their last meal. Elijah asks her nevertheless to share their meal with him. Recognizing him as a man of God, she does. Recognizing God’s will, she responds. Generously. She discovers: God is never outdone in generosity.
God teaches generosity in the New Testament story of the widow who gave not from her surplus but from her poverty. Here, her couple of pesos was worth much, much more than the millions the rich had given from their surplus. Here, generosity is founded on faith in God’s providence – a providence that is generous even in poverty.
“Lord, teach me to be generous…” The Lord teaches us generosity – Christian generosity – from the Cross: “who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. … He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a Cross” (Phil. 2-8). It is with this Jesus hanging on the Cross that we converse intimately. Our prayer might be: “If this is what you have done for me in love, what have I done for you? What am I doing for you? What ought I do for you?” If this was your example of generosity that we might enjoy the fruits of the Resurrection, what might be ours? “Lord, teach me to be generous…”
“Teach me to serve you…” Not to serve money, honor, and pride. Not to fall before the demon in worship because he is able to show us the kingdoms of the world. Not just to serve my company, my boss, my stockholders. “Teach me to serve you as you deserve.” What service does this Lord deserve? What service does this Lord who lifts us up from sin and offers us a life of meaning and joy deserve? What service does this Lord deserve who stoops down to wash our feet in service?
“[Teach me] To give and not to count the cost…” Because it is so easy to serve in expectation of being served. Because it is so easy to take pride in all that I have given up just to be generous…! Because it is so easy think that God really owes me one for being so generous!
“[Teach me] To fight and not to heed the wounds…” Because being on God’s side entails suffering.
“[Teach me] To toil and not to seek for rest…” Because working for the kingdom is exhausting.
“[Teach me] To labor and ask not for reward…” Because my work is not to be prostituted for money.
Teach me to seek no reward, “save that of knowing that we do your most holy will.” Because one in life can do none greater.
As God is generous, so be generous. As God is kind, so be kind. As God is compassion, so be compassionate. As Mother Theresa of Calcutta taught: “Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier. Be the living expression of God’s kindness: kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile!”