In the Name of the God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.
She had slept the night before under a bridge in Jerusalem because all the beds in the homeless shelter were taken. She got lucky in the morning and was able to grab the leftover bread on the sidewalk thrown out by the bakery for the animals. Her spine ached from sleeping on the hard ground but still she thanked God for the coat she had found in the garbage heap the day before making the night chill bearable. She checked the pocket to be sure she still had the coins from her weekly redemption of aluminum cans.
We are never told her name which is probably the way she would have wanted it. She had no home address or social security number. It had been that way for years even though she had once lived in a nice neighborhood.
When her husband died suddenly, she lost her identity. Gone. Hebrew law allowed the estate of the deceased husband to by-pass his wife so widowhood had hit her hard. To add to her misery, religious leaders believed a premature death such as her husband’s was the result of his sin and her situation ensued as part of that curse.
Still she had kept her faith and in spite of the harshness of her broken life, was grateful for the little she had. And so she would go later that morning to the temple where, smelling musty and looking disheveled, she would go to the treasury and put in her two copper coins. And walk away quietly with no concern about how her gift will be used. She just gives and goes on her way.
The rather short Gospel today has two parts. The first is a criticism of the prideful practices of the scribes—probably lawyers and judges—who are criticized for liking to parade around in long robes—clothing that was the sign of their higher education—and for expecting everyone to pay attention to them because of their status.
They are arrogant, uptight, snobs. They want the highest place of honor at table when they go to a dinner party. Yet the worst thing about them is how they take advantage of widows and then show off their false piety by pretentious, phony long devotional prayers.
The second part offers us the contrast of the widow who humbly, gratefully, without fanfare or any desire for recognition gives all that she has with no expectation of a thank you note from the Rabbi. The gifts of the wealthy only show their opulence and were such that they could easily spare with no sacrifice or genuine self-giving. And they’d better get more than a perfunctory “thank you” from the temple leaders. They’d better get the best seats in the house for Shabbat.
Throughout Scripture, the treatment of widows is a benchmark of community justice. Only a few times are they seen as anything more than needy and defined by their loss. Jesus turns this perception upside down with this denunciation of the pompous, snobbish wealthy males of his time juxtaposed to his admiration of this underprivileged woman who gave everything she had.
The first reading today is about another destitute widow with only a barrel of flour and a pitcher of oil, just enough for one last meal before she and her son would likely die in the famine afflicting Sidon. Yet she was the one God had chosen to provide for his prophet Elijah who finds her gathering wood to cook her last meal.
The rules of hospitality would not allow her to refuse him a drink of water and when he asks her to make a cake for him and pledges that God will not allow her meager supply to fail, she trusts in God’s faithfulness and bakes her heart out. Instead of a last meal, she and her son have food for many days ahead with enough to feed Elijah as well.
I suppose many preachers jump for joy when they discover these are the texts for this Sunday which typically falls smack in the middle of the season when churches are asking their people to commit to a level of giving in support of their mission and ministry and as they attempt to create a budget for the coming year. In truth, these lessons are not a teaching for stewardship Sunday or any fundraising campaign. They are about trust; trust that God will not be outdone in generosity.
God’s word today should be a call to the abandonment of oneself to something deeper, more profound and less programmed and planned than our tendency to value our independence and investments over our trust in God’s provision and unmatched abundance.
Noted author, Sister Joan Chittister, has said that everyone we meet in life is on a mission to teach us something new. Little did the scribes who were strutting about and posturing in their flowing robes know that centuries later their hollow lives would be showcased for believers and nonbelievers alike as examples of bad religion nor did the humble widow realize that her story would come down to us as the embodiment of a deeper understanding of self-giving that requires utter and complete conviction. It’s stories like hers that illuminate the reality that the poor are not only our neighbors, they are our teachers. They know what it is like to be hungry, down and out, and dependent on God alone.
Perhaps the most useful lesson for us who are far from being poor is that God supplies—after we have opened our own hands and wallets. Who is poor, in the final analysis—and who is rich? If we want to know who we are, as distinct from who we think we are—maybe we should not look at where we spend our money, but where and how we give it away.