A reading from the letter of Paul to... began the lector; but instead of following St. Paul’s epistle, I opened the parish bulletin and read, once again, a mother’s letter of gratitude to her fellow parishioners and the outreach program they support. The woman was not a single mom, but a mother who suddenly found herself with the heavy responsibility of supporting herself and her children when her spouse chose to abdicate his role as father and husband. With no job and no money, without food for herself and her children, without even diapers for her baby, she had come to the church and asked for assistance. Outreach had fed her family, provided sneakers and school supplies for her children through its back-to-school program, and placed gifts under their tree at Christmas through the promised gift program.
My son tugged at my sleeve. What is Jesus saying about a basket? I realized that we were standing and that the Gospel was being read. I’ll explain later, I whispered. I tried to focus on the homily, but noticed that my son was looking at the people seated nearby, then back at me. What is Father saying about a light under a basket? Then I understood his perplexity. He wanted to know what in the Gospel was causing me, and me alone, to cry. We’ll talk at home, I told him.
I wiped my eyes and returned to the woman’s letter, for her story was, in a way, my story. Like me, she was in a free-fall from the married state and a middle-class existence into a state of fear, uncertainty and an overwhelming feeling of powerlessness.
Suffice it to say that I filed for an order of protection to save my life, and for a divorce to save my soul. How many Sundays had I spied outreach’s food collection bin when I entered the church and knew that with my new job and old skills, I was one paycheck away from outreach. But now I saw the difference between one paycheck and none: that paycheck gave me the power to take care of myself and my son and empowered me to help others. I vowed that I would somehow manage to increase my weekly donation by a dollar or two so that outreach could continue to serve families in need.
When we got home, I reached for the New Testament and wondered how I could explain the Gospel to a childa child whom society labels mentally retardedwhen the words of Jesus confounded even the Apostles. I opened to Mt. 5:14-16: You are the light of the world. A city seated on a mountain cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle and put it under a bushel, but upon a candlestick, that it may shine to all that are in the house. So let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.
That it may shine to all that are in the house, that they may see your good works. That was not how I had learned, as a child, to practice charity. I was taught that for an act of charity to be acceptable to God it must remain hidden, private, lest we become boastful and commit a sin of pride, thereby negating the value of the original act. But that’s not what Jesus was saying; and while I believed that my vow to increase my donation to outreach was pleasing to God because it was given from sustenance, not surplus, I realized that although I was practicing charity, I was not teaching it. I’ve been a mother long enough to know that a child learns moral, ethical and, yes, spiritual values not just by word, but by example.
I summoned my son to my side. I know you’re wondering why I was crying during the Gospel today, so I want you to listen to this letter in today’s bulletin. When I finished the letter, I read the passage from Matthew. We’re going through difficult times now, I explained to him, but you can see from the letter that I’m not the only mother in the parish experiencing problems, nor are you the only child in the parish who has it rough. I was able to get a job because you’re old enough to go to school and take care of yourself, but this mother has small children, and even a baby in her arms, and that’s why she turned to outreach for help. I know that last winter we barely had money for groceries; but things are a little better now, and so I promised God that I would put an extra dollar or two in the collection to help people like this mother and her children.
Solemnly, he nodded in agreement. But after reading what Jesus said about not hiding a good deed under a bushel, I’ve decided to give the money to you. His eyes brightened. We can’t do much, but we can afford to buy one meal for someone each week, so when we go grocery shopping you have to find something....
Like what? he interrupted.
A can of soup, a box of macaroni, peanut butter, tuna fish, anything that makes a meal. Then on Sunday morning you’ll bring it to church, put it in the outreach bin, and you will know that because of your efforts some child in the parish will not have to go to bed hungry.
I noted his eagerness during the ensuing weeks, but couldn’t help wondering if his enthusiasm would wane. Just the opposite was true, however. He began checking the supermarket advertisements each week, and discovered, for instance, that he could get three boxes of macaroni on sale for the regular price of one. Then he began clipping coupons. Now he found that not only could he get three boxes of macaroni on sale, but by using a coupon, could also get a jar of tomato sauce to go with the pasta. He came into his own, however, with the advent of double coupons.
On a recent Sunday morning, as I watched my son struggle to carry the shopping bag with a large bottle of juice he’d gotten on sale and three boxes of cereal he’d gotten free with double coupons, I thought of the bushel that Jesus spoke of. Christopher has taken that basket, turned it over and filled it to abundance.