20 Nov Thirty Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Deacon Blaine Barclay
Sunday November 11, 2018
Today we have a tale of two widows. They are like the book ends of the readings for today’s liturgy. What do these widows have to teach us? For in both stories they are being held up as heroic examples of the practice of the faith.
In both cases what is being held out for us, for our imitation, are outwardly very little things done with the courage of a trusting heart of faith. As St. Teresa of Calcutta tells us, ‘do little things with great love’. As background we need to be clear about the situation of widows in both the time of Elijah and of Jesus. Widows were often among of the poorest of the poor, with no economic or legal status in the community. Forced to rely on the generosity of family or strangers in order to survive. Gleaning for leftover food in the already harvested fields of the rich. Sometimes forced into a loveless marriage to the nearest eligible male relative of their dead husband. As an aside, most scholars agree that Joseph was dead by the time of Jesus’ public ministry, so Jesus would have been quite aware of the difficulties and hardships of the life of a widow in Jewish society. Our Lady was a widow.
But let’s begin with the story of the prophet Elijah and his encounter with an impoverished widow. Outside of a small town, after a long fast in the desert, a very hungry Elijah comes across a widow gathering sticks in order to cook a last meal for her and her little son. Elijah asks her for a little water to drink. As she brings him the water he asks also for a morsel of bread. Her response is that she only has a little meal or flour in a jar which she is going to bake for her son and herself. She is convinced that this will be their last meal, she is at the bottom of her rope, hers is an abject poverty, a poverty that is without resources, with nowhere to turn for help. Jesus speaks of this poverty and teaches us that it is foundational to the life of a disciple. The first Beatitude in Matthew says, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’. Another translation says ‘blessed are those who have reached the end of their rope’. Luke’s first Beatitude simply says, ‘Blessed are the poor’. Elijah’s widow exemplifies for us this first Beatitude. In the middle of her destitution Elijah invites this poor widow to find within her heart, her battered, defeated heart, a final act of charity, a moment of tenderness toward another person in need. To see beyond her own poverty, and the possibility of solidarity with someone else’s poverty.
But first Elijah speaks to her and to us a word of encouragement. ‘Do not be afraid’, he says. He also speaks a word of promise. ‘The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.’ Her response is what is decisive for us. ‘She went and did as Elijah said’. And what was the result of her capacity for generosity? It says, ‘that she as well as her house hold ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.’ Truly, as our Psalm today says, ‘It is the Lord… who gives food to the hungry…. The Lord upholds the orphan and the widow’.
Our gospel today begins with Jesus providing a double edged criticism of religious people, who like other people to notice how religious they are. As an aside this is also a kind of early warning system against clericalism in the Church. But the real cutting edge of his critique brings us back to widows. ‘They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearances say long prayers’. Inauthentic religion and injustice are often found together. Just like love of God and Neighbour are an inseparable whole, and faith and justice always go together.
The final widow book-end for today is often called ‘the widows mite’, mite being an old word for the smallest form of currency. In our society a penny or one cent, so small for us that it only exists electronically. In the case of the widow in our story, two copper coins, each less than a penny. Jesus sees lots of people giving lots of money to the temple treasury, that’s like an ancient collection plate. He doesn’t criticize their generous giving but he does recognize that it is proportionate to their capacity to give. They are giving out of their abundance. Then he witnesses something that moves his heart, an impoverished widow gives the smallest possible offering, almost nothing, but with one crucial difference, her gift proceeds from the heart. All true giving proceeds from the heart and flows from our sense of God’s prior generosity to us. The generosity of God is a self-emptying gift, it always involves Gods self-communication. It is because of this self-giving nature of the gift that Jesus calls his disciples over and holds the widow up as an example for all of us. When the widow puts the penny in the temple treasury she includes herself in her gift, and by doing so shows us what God is like.