ColumnsSunday’s Word

Elijah and the widow

November 11, 2018


1 Kgs 17:10-16

Elijah and the widow

Ps 146:7-10

The Lord gives food to the hungry

Heb 9:24-28

Not a sanctuary made by hands

Mk 12:38-44

Scribes, and a poor widow 111118.cfm

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The Gospel reading speaks first about the scribes who like to go around in long robes, and then it turns to a story about a poor widow. The segue between the two accounts is the accusation that the scribes “devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext recite lengthy prayers.” The scribes like to be noticed; the widow, not so much.

The first reading about Elijah and the widow who fed him during the days of the famine, when she had, as she said, “only a handful of flour in my jar and a little oil in my jug,” tells us that generous poor widows are the theme in today’s Liturgy of the Word. The prophet rewards the widow with a pledge — “The jar of flour shall not go empty, nor the jug of oil run dry, until the day when the Lord sends rain upon the earth.”

In the Gospel story, the widow enters the scene quietly. The first radical act of Jesus is to notice her. She is accustomed to being ignored. But she does not escape his attention. The second radical act is to praise her as a paradigm of true generosity. Her offering is an authentic sacrifice, since “she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.”

As always, there is a backstory. And with the Gospels, that usually means the Old Testament has something to say. In this case, it would be the prophetic theme of the widow and the orphan, as representatives of the care for others that God wants Israelites to make a constant part of their faith expression (Isa 1:17, 23; Zech 7:10). Often enough, the circle of concern extends to the stranger in the land and the poor neighbor (Jer 7:5-7; 22:3; Mal 3:5).

Here the prophets are simply appealing to the law of the land, as found in the law code of Exodus, where the Ten Commandments are spelled out in more detail in the following chapters. In Exodus 22:20-26 (in most Bibles), we find a passage that has come to be known as the cry of the poor. It is a legal passage, explaining what God wants of his people. In a passage that runs through twice, the law speaks in God’s name. It warns: Do not molest the stranger in the land, nor the widow and orphan, if they cry out to me, I will hear them. Also, do not molest the poor neighbor. Return the cloak he has given as pledge before nightfall. It is his covering for the night. If he cries out, I will hear him. Each of the two threads is sealed with an affirmation of God’s identity. First, I am a God of wrath (22:23); then, I am a God of compassion (22:26).

The point is that in Israel, the vulnerable are to be protected, not exploited. It is the law. It is part of the covenant agreement. This is why the prophets keep citing it in their judgment on Israel. It is behind the story of Elijah and the widow (and her son, the orphan). And it is being the story of Jesus and the widow.

But in both cases, there is more, for in each the lesson goes beyond protecting the vulnerable to that of praising the generosity of those who have so little to give. And that takes us back to the scribes and what they do not understand about the faith they profess. The last person Jesus has us meet before his story moves into the final days is this poor widow, giving all she has, her entire livelihood.

For reflection: There may be a resonance between the gift-giving of this widow and the self-offering of Jesus in the next days.

 Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.