The poor and the defenseless are at the heart of the Church’s scripture readings this Sunday, with Elijah the prophet encountering the impoverished widow of Zarephath, the Psalmist singing the praises of the Lord who is close to the downtrodden, and Jesus himself upholding the poor widow visiting the Temple as the model of unpretentious Jewish and Christian piety.
First we meet the great Elijah, one of the most important of the many prophets who prepared Israel for the coming of the Lord. Spoken at a very difficult time in the history of Israel, his words to the starving widow of Zarephath might seem strikingly callous: “first make me a little cake and bring it to me, then you can prepare something for yourself and your son” (1 Kings 17:13) His message however, borne by his own words and even more powerfully by the woman’s amazing response of faith, was that when one trusts in the Lord one both stands firm in generosity and remains open to the surpassing generosity of the God who is ever close to the vulnerable.
For his part, the Psalmist writes at length about this closeness of God to the suffering. “The Lord keeps faith forever, secures justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets captives free. The Lord gives sight to the blind. The Lord raises up those who were bowed down; the Lord loves the just. The Lord protects strangers. The fatherless and the widow he sustains” (Ps 146:6-9). This Psalm thus points ahead to Christ, in whom God’s closeness to his people is shown perfectly, precisely in his union with our poverty and vulnerability in its many forms. Christ in fact identifies with us to the point of sharing our ultimate vulnerability of suffering the effects of sin and death: he is truly Emmanuel—“God with us.”
The first reading thus tells us to trust in the Lord in the face of all odds, and the responsorial Psalm explains that our trust is merited due to the Lord’s gracious condescension to the lowly. In the Gospel, witnessing the action of the poor widow, we receive the lesson of all this: we are to avoid the conceit of pride and ostentation, which are the opposite of the humble love that recognizes its own lowliness and finds peace in the Lord’s providence.
The “widow’s mite”—the two small coins worth a few cents mentioned by Jesus—have entered our common lexicon of expressions indicating a small but heartfelt contribution to an effort or cause. Some years ago a church where we Benedictines have long served published a book celebrating its centennial as a parish; the book was entitled “The Church Built with Nickels.” This might serve both as a modern day example of the widow’s mite and as a poignant reminder that for practically everyone reading this (and the one writing it) our ancestors came from abroad and lived lives like that of the widow, often marked by vulnerability and contingency—lives where every nickel counted.
This memory alone should help to prevent any sense of arrogance or self-satisfaction, like that of the scribes in the Gospel, from creeping up within us, and should remind us of just how blessed we truly are. When we keep this balanced perspective about ourselves we tend to make better use of the gifts the Lord has given us and we remain more open to sharing those gifts with others, since such generosity comes naturally to the lowly, who are close to the heart of the Lord.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.
Artwork: Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath, Bartholomeus Breenbergh (1598-1657)