What makes people generous?

The logical assumption is that people are generous because they have extra. They give because they are materially well off and know they have resources to spare.

In Mark chapter 12 Jesus seems to suggest that generosity may have a different source.

Jesus was sitting opposite the temple treasury watching worshipers as they deposited their offerings. There were many rich people who “put in large sums.” These affluent givers are not the ones Jesus commends for their action.

Jesus’ praise was saved for a poor widow who

came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. (Mark 12:42)

Speaking of this poor widow Jesus said,

this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.(Mark 12:43,44)

The materially wealthy donors gave “out of their abundance.” “Abundance” is an unfortunate translation. The Greek word is “perisseuō“. It can be translated “abundance;” but I prefer the translation “leftovers.” These “rich” people gave from their “leftovers.” Their donation cost them nothing.

Eugene Peterson in The Message, translates Mark 12:44 as:

All the others gave what they’ll never miss.

The poor widow had no leftovers. She gave “out of her poverty.”

Generosity comes from our willingness to acknowledge and embrace our poverty.

The world is not divided into “rich” and “poor.” We are all poor. Our poverty may be material or physical; it may be spiritual, emotional, or relational. It is only when we begin to see that we are united with all of humanity in the reality of our poverty, that our hearts begin to open and we are empowered to give like the poor widow.

Jesus said,

Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.(Matthew 19:23)

This may or may not have anything to do with material wealth. To be rich in the biblical sense is to believe in the illusion of my own self-sufficiency.  The danger in being “a rich person” whatever form my riches may take, is that I start to believe in my riches as a source of security.

To be poor is to know that there is no security in the external world.

In his brilliant sermon based on The Book Of Job in his movie masterpiece, “The Tree Of Life,” Terrence Malick has the preacher declare,

misfortune befalls the good as well. We can’t protect ourselves against it. We can’t protect our children. We can’t say to ourselves, even if I’m not happy, I’m going to make sure they are.

We vanish as a cloud. We wither as the autumn grass, and like a tree are rooted up.


We are united in our poverty. It is only when we look deeply into the fragile reality of our human condition that our hearts begin to open to the source of beauty, love and generosity that is our true nature. I am free then to give, not from the leftovers, but from the essence of life, from the source of my being. This is true generosity. This is giving that comes with no strings attached because it flows out of the abundance I discover when I embrace my poverty.