I like to watch people, but not in that creepy way you’re probably picturing. No. Some years ago, I would go to the mall late in the Christmas shopping season, and park myself somewhere inconspicuous, and just watch the foot traffic. I cannot tell you how or why, but I found that just sitting there observing gave me much insight into ordinary people’s lives as I watched young couples walk dreamily arm in arm, and wide-eyed children stand mesmerized by twinkling lights and colorful window displays, and weary parents and their bored teenagers tread that delicate balance between total fiscal dependence and total humiliation at being caught publicly fraternizing with the enemy.
I observed people lug shopping bags packed with merchandise, and patiently converse with their cranky children, while trying valiantly to get into the Christmas spirit, and sincerely believe they will treasure these fond memories for years to come. I know it is a stressful time for a lot of people. And I make a sincere effort to welcome the hustle and bustle of the holiday commercial frenzy, knowing it all has little to do with the awesome mystery of the Incarnation and God’s eternal loving plan of salvation. And okay, maybe I do give in to cynicism way too easily, but I am always eager and hopeful I would witness a lightbulb come on somewhere, and that I would encounter mystery, or something vaguely resembling wakefulness or profound understanding.
I would avoid eye contact as much as possible. I didn’t want anyone to know I was watching. And it was right when nothing obvious was happening that something wonderful might occur, and a previously surly teenager cheerfully retrieves something an older person dropped, or an exhausted parent scoops up and comforts a child in the throes of a meltdown, or a shopping-weary couple sneak a grateful smile while their children stuff their faces with pizza at the food court. Good times.
So in today’s gospel, we hear that Jesus parked himself somewhere in the temple area, probably somewhere he could watch random people drop their contributions into the collection box of the temple treasury. There was the regular parade of contributors —tradesmen, farmers, fishermen, shepherds, mothers with children in tow, scribes and teachers of the law, Pharisees and Sadducees. And every once in a while some local celebrity or wealthy resident would walk in with a small entourage. Their not so quiet presence would naturally attract the attention of people nearby as they ceremoniously placed their contribution in the collection. Some among them would make an even bigger deal of it, their servants opening their money bags and noisily emptying the coins into the collection box for maximum effect, while the attention-grabbing donor mingled with temple officials, and their recognizable security detail kept the gawking crowds at bay. And after they spend their ten minutes in the spotlight, they just blend right into the crowd, and someone else steps forward to take their turn in the spotlight.
But Jesus just sits there observing, watching quietly until a poor widow catches his eye. She is likely walking alone, hunched over from the weight of many years, shuffling ever so slowly, her eyes lowered. A short distance from the collection box she pauses, fumbling in her garments for the two small coins that could easily cover any number of pressing needs, her own or her family’s. She resumes her slow shuffling toward the collection box, and then lingers as she reverently utters a silent prayer. And without fanfare she drops them in the box. They make no sound. And she walks away as she had approached, slowly, hunched over, her eyes still lowered.
Jesus waits a minute or two until the woman disappears into the crowd. He is respectful of her privacy. He doesn’t point her out. If anyone else had noticed her, they might not be able to identify her. But God surely noticed because her silent prayer did not fall on deaf ears. And her offering of two small coins had greater value in God’s eyes than all other offerings dropped into the collection that day put together.
In the end, it matters little to God whether one is rich or poor, or whether one contributes a big offering or a small offering. At least from what Jesus was saying, what matters much more to God is the sincerity that accompanies the offering. For certain, a larger offering can accomplish a whole lot more good, covering the needs of many more of the poor and the needy. But in a later passage in the gospel of John, at a dinner in Bethany when Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with expensive perfumed oil, Judas observes in his heart how it could have been sold for three hundred days’ wages and the money be given to the poor. Jesus would tell Judas, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” He meant that by anointing him, Mary was preparing him for his burial. But it also seems Jesus was saying Mary’s sincerity in rendering him honor surpassed the needs of the poor and the needy that day. What may be obvious to everyone else is sometimes not what God considers to be of greater value. And what God considers of greater value will sometimes escape our notice.
By drawing our attention to the otherwise negligible anonymous offering of a destitute widow, Jesus takes the opportunity to remind us that we should probably focus more on seeking God’s approval rather than the approval of our neighbor. God alone discerns the depths of our hearts. We will never be able to conceal our intentions and our motives from his gaze. And God is supremely able to tell whether our generosity is genuine and heartfelt, or we’re just doing it for the ratings. When a person has little or nothing to lose, they tend to be more transparent and accommodating. Even more so for those who know they have only God to rely on, who live in total and unwavering offering of self to God, and who are not at all concerned what their neighbor has to say or thinks about them.
Today is the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended the first world war. Three years later on this same date, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was dedicated at Arlington National Cemetery. The Washington Post reported then that “The turnout for that funeral was massive and unprecedented, … a historic honor for one person, although no one in attendance knew who that person was. … Today the Tomb of the Unknown is as solid in the public psyche as its massive marble slabs are heavy on that hallowed ground.” The familiar epitaph reads “HERE RESTS IN HONORED GLORY AN AMERICAN SOLDIER KNOWN BUT TO GOD.” A hero known but to God. The faithful disciple desires neither applause nor recognition, because that disciple is content to be “known but to God” as well. That God sees and knows is all that truly matters.
Rolo B Castillo © 2018
John 12: 8