It is quite obvious even to the most casual of observers that the readings for this Sunday focus our attention on widows – the most helpless individuals of Israelite society. The word widow in Hebrew means “voiceless ones.” Sadly, their plight is the consequence of the Torah which dictates that only males can inherit the wealth of their deceased relatives. Without the help of their families or the charity of the society at large, they have no means at all to support themselves. They are the first to suffer in times of economic decline.
The first story comes to us from the First Book of Kings, one of forty-five prediction-fulfillment stories spread throughout the course of the First and Second Book of Kings. The purpose of these stories is to emphasize the fact that if God is faithful in small things, surely God will also be faithful in the greater promise that David’s dynasty will not end.
Elijah the prophet has predicted that drought will come because God’s people have defected and gone over to the worship of Ba’al, a false god. He spends his time near a brook where he is fed by ravens. Eventually, the brook goes dry forcing him to look for food elsewhere. God sends him to Zarephath; “Stay there, I have designated a widow there to provide for you.” The most helpless person in society is called upon to provide for God’s prophet. She is indeed destitute when Elijah arrives with only a handful of flour and a little oil. Elijah asks her to share even that little bit with him, promising that the God who feeds the hungry will not let the jar of flour go empty or the jug of oil run dry until the rain ends the drought.
It must be pointed out that the woman is not an Israelite like Elijah. He is not in his own country. Ordinarily the laws of hospitality would demand that the tribal chieftain would feed the stranger. However, Elijah is making a point by approaching the poor woman. God protects the widows and orphans as well as the strangers and pilgrims. Psalm 146, our response today, proclaims these truths.
The Gospel provides both a contrast and a parallel. The scribes, who are accused by Jesus, are far from Elijah’s situation. He is in dire straits because of the drought just as the widow is. However, they are enjoying the perquisites of their office. The widow, on the other hand, parallels the widow of Elijah’s time. She too is destitute. She too is being asked for the last little bit that she has to live on. Jesus condemns the system that can make a demand like this upon the widow. By his presence Elijah supports the widow who supports him. He brings the gift of God to repay her gift. In contrast, the religious leaders of the gospel devour the widow’s savings and provide her nothing in return.
The contrast between these two stories is highlighted by the reading from the Letter to the Hebrews. In it Christ is portrayed as the true religious leader, the one who truly images the compassion of God. Rather than devouring the life of others, Christ offers his own life, his own blood to take away our sins and win life for us. Christ is the perfect image of the God who feeds the hungry, protects the stranger, and sustains the helpless.
The application of this story to our own times is so evident that it would be ridiculous for me to belabor the point. We live in a world where the chasm between the wealthy and the poor has grown ever deeper and ever wider. Despite our ingenuity and creativity, we have yet to overcome the plight of the hungry. Our misuse of the riches of our environment is leaving us on the brink of another drought, a drought that is threatening the entire planet. Men and women are gathered in Glasgow to work together to intervene in the catastrophe that threatens the lives of all of our children and grandchildren. Like the widows of today’s readings, we are being called upon to give all that we have to save not only ourselves but the world we live in.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator