Sometimes I stumble over a detail in a biblical story and as a
result, have trouble entering the rest of the passage. In today’s
reading from I Kings, the detail that distracts me is the prophet
Elijah’s request for water and bread from the Zarephath widow he
meets at the entrance of the Gentiles city. He sounds privileged and
indifferent to her desperate situation. There was a drought in the
land and as a result she has only a bit of flour and some oil to
prepare a final meal for herself and her son. After they eat, she
says, "we shall die."
Despite the fact that she is in a miserable situation, Elijah
tells her to go ahead and gather sticks for her fire, "But first
make me a little cake and bring it to me." Then he tells her she can
take care of herself and her son. Really! Isn’t that
seeming-insensitive request enough to make you want to quit this
prophet and find a more amiable one? Hasn’t Elijah any sensitivity
to the widows desperate situation? Is it possible to redeem the
The world of the story is so different from our own. There was a
strong culture of hospitality. So, a stranger was to be welcomed and
fed, even at great personal cost. Elijah receives the hospitality of
the poor widow and assures her that because she has trusted him and
his God, she and her son will have enough to eat and drink until the
Elijah is a Jewish prophet, the woman is a Gentile. Yet, unlike
the belief of the day that limited a nation’s gods to national
boundaries, Elijah’s God has no such limits. The widow trusts the
prophet and his God, despite her beliefs and dire situation. The
vulnerable and needy receive help from our compassionate and just
God. That is the story of the Bible, and today we have more examples
of God’s noticing and reaching out to those who need God the most.
The story of Elijah and the widow takes us to the gospel, where we
meet the same God of love, who notices the least and the neediest.
The plight of widows is mentioned twice in the gospel today.
Jesus has entered Jerusalem with his disciples. This is his last
ministerial appearance and teaching before his passion and death.
The solemnity of the moment puts extra emphasis on the message and
importance of his last words to the crowds. Widows were among the
most vulnerable in society and Jesus turns his attention to them
First he criticizes the scribes who were his virulent opponents.
They were respected religious authorities and were among both the
Pharisees and Sadducees. They were admired for the sacrifices they
made to worship and serve God, and were respected teachers of the
Scriptures. Scribes were also revered as intercessors with God. How
shocked then Jesus’ disciples would have been at his criticism of
them as power-hungry hypocrites.
Because scribes were so respected when a husband died his widow
might entrust her inheritance to a scribes’ care. There were scribes
who cheated and misused these funds and that is why Jesus says they
"devour the houses of widows." The very ones who should have
defended and protected the rights of widows took advantage of them.
Jesus’ critique reflects the prophets’ critique of injustice done
against the poor and voiceless of the land. In addition, he accuses
the scribes of using the Temple for their own profit.
Jesus notes the rich donating money from their surplus, while the
poor widow "from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole
livelihood." The Greek literally says the widow "gave her whole
life." Since this passage comes before the passion Jesus’ words take
on special meaning for disciples who, like the widow, are asked to
give their all to follow him.
How many church fund raisers have used the widow story as a pitch
for larger donations? After all, the argument goes, the widow gave
all she had for God’s work. The one making the pitch challenges, "If
the poor widow gave so much why can’t we increase our giving?" The
implication is that we should give until it hurts. Sounds like the
fund raiser has good gospel credentials to back him/her up – the
very words of Jesus. Isn’t that why Mark is narrating the widow’s
tale, to call us to copy her generosity? It’s possible.
But perhaps Jesus is lamenting what he sees. The widow’s action
follows immediately on his critique of the scribes who profit from
their status and "devour the houses of widows." It is a warning
about those leaders in ministry who bask in their own significance
and live comfortably off the backs of those they serve. In recent
years there have been revelations about nationally famous preachers
who live extravagantly from the mail-in donations of their
followers. We have also learned about some of our own bishops who
have built extravagant homes for themselves and pastors who have
remodeled rectories that, in the eyes of their parishioners, seem
extravagant. Not counting expensive meals out and high class
But the readings today don’t let any of us off the hook. They
call us to imitate God’s hospitality and examine how generous we
have been in offering ourselves to God’s service – especially to the
least and overlooked, like the widow who would not have been noticed
by anyone else but Jesus.
Baptism has given us the eyes of faith. We might ask ourselves:
Do we see with Jesus’ eyes the poor around us? Are we aware of their
living conditions? What are the causes of poverty in our community?
In the struggling nations? What can I and my church community do to
address these conditions and improve the welfare of the poor?
Like the widow Jesus is about to give his whole life into God’s
hands and his death and resurrection will empower us to do the same.
Today’s Psalm response to the first reading proclaims:
keeps faith forever,
justice for the oppressed
to the hungry.
sets captives free."
There’s more to Psalm 146. It will make a good prayer for us as
we seek to see with God’s eyes and respond to what we observe this
for a link to this Sunday’s readings: