THIRTY-SECOND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
1 Kings 17:10-16
This thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time might aptly be named “Widow Sunday,” since it is the example of two widows in the Scriptures which is presented to us in order that we might reflect on generosity and true worship.
In the reading from the First Book of Kings, the prophet Elijah, who is fleeing the wrath of King Ahab and his cruel wife, Jezebel, is told to go to a pagan city where God “commanded a widow” to feed him. It might appear that the unnamed widow chosen by God was perhaps an unusual choice. The widow herself appears to be a victim of the famine prophesied by Elijah, and she barely has enough food for her and her son. Nevertheless, the widow welcomes Elijah, and she shares what little she has with the prophet. Elijah rewards the widow with a miraculous supply of flour and oil, enabling her and her son to “eat for a year.” It was the widow’s trust in Elijah’s God which enabled the widow to overcome her fears and share her meager provisions with Elijah. That Elijah was truly a man of God would become even clearer to the widow when Elijah restores her son to life after his death (1 Kgs 17:17ff.).
The second widow is presented to us in our gospel reading from Mark. She too is unnamed. Her story is shared with us only after what Sr. Mary McGlone, SJ, calls Jesus’ public service announcement about the Scribes: “Beware! There are people among you who wear extravagent costumes to make you think they are pious, but it is all for themselves! They use their positions to defraud others!” The humble and generous widow of the gospel will present a stark contrast to the Scribes, proving that holiness does not always reside in religious professionals.
The atmosphere in Mark’s gospel has been heating up since right after the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. After Jesus drives the money changers out of the outer courtyard of the Temple, the religious authorities “were seeking a way to put him to death.” One by one Jesus engages in debate with the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Scribes, and the Herodians, increasing the tension which will result in His crucifixion.
Perhaps seeking some peace and quiet, Jesus takes a seat in the inner courtyard, the Court of Women, so-called because it is the last place in the Temple that women were allowed to enter (how convenient for securing the funds of widows). It is here in the Temple’s treasury that the widow attracts the attention of Jesus, and Jesus is intent that his disciples do not miss the point of what they all observed. Jesus exalts the example of the widow, telling the disciples that she “put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury,” for “she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.” The widow’s contribution was not intended as a show to impress others. Rather, her giving was an expression of love of God and love of neighbor. According to Scripture commentator John Pilch: “The simple Piety of this woman of no social standing is contrasted with the arrogance and social ambitions of some so-called religious leaders. This poor woman, in a daring act of trust in God’s providence, put into the treasure everything she had. Her action symbolized what Jesus would do by offering his very life to God his Father as an act of perfect obedience.”
The widows of today’s liturgy demonstrate the danger of judging anyone by mere externals. It is worth noting that the widow in our first reading was a pagan, someone who the Jews of Jesus’ day would never associate with. Had Jesus asked his disciples who gave the most to the treasury their attention would certainly have fallen on those whose contribution made the most noise as their coins hit the trumpet-shaped receptacles of the Temple. The disciples, who so often get things wrong, might not have even noticed this poorly-dressed beggar woman who impressed Jesus. As the familiar passage in the Letter of James (2:1-13) suggests, we are to avoid the sin of partiality which gives people preferential treatment because of how they are dressed, what their educational qualifications are, or their celebrity status. We are meant to judge as we hope one day to be judged by a loving God, judged on that which lies hidden deep within us, and not on externals.
The widows are also meant to be examples of what generous love does. It trusts in God’s care. Neither widow could be sure where her next meal was coming from or whether there would be anything left to contribute to the Temple, but they shared and gave nonetheless. The widow’s sacrificial self-giving reflects God’s love, who gave us His only Son who would sacrifice His very self on the wood of the cross in order that all people might be saved, a sacrifice far greater than that of the two widows or that of all those who contributed to the Temple Treasury. Like Jesus we are meant to be generous with others in the sharing of our time, our talents, our very selves. Whether it is the collection basket or the local soup kitchen, we are humbly called to do all that we can to help those in need. The offering God truly desires of us is not our material possessions. Rather, God wants our hearts and lives. What is hardest to give is ourselves in love and concern, because that gift costs us more than reaching for our wallets.
The lessons of “Widow Sunday” should make us think about how we look at, and behave towards, other people we encounter in life. May we never allow externals to prevent us from seeing the neediest of people as children of the same loving God. May our generosity be like that of the widow in the gospel, whose offering was complete and courageous, and done with total trust in God’s grace.