Mary Chilton Callaway, a perceptive and profound commentator on the Jewish Scriptures and their vast matrix literature, says that our understandings and interpretations of biblical passage are often more influenced by how others have read them than by the texts themselves. By “other readers” she means translators, commentators, preachers, teachers, and so forth. Her image is that we are guests at a banquet to which we bring something, and we leave with our one empty dish but having been nourished by what everyone else brought as well. Some of it may be toxic, of course, and then we are ill!
Today the “reading Church,” the lectionary, juxtaposes the widow willing to spend her last resources on Elijah with the woman whose last coins were cast at a moment when Jesus was pondering the quality of his own immediate future. The lectionary thus pushes us toward seeing each of these women giving a valuable gift to “her prophet,” giving him from her poverty something he was not at that moment quite able to provide for himself. It has been common lately, not inappropriately, to stress rather the scandal that the circumstances of both women’s lives were so dire, to underline that the temple that gobbles up a widow’s last coins (if not a prophet who would insist on her last meal) as scandalous. Such interpretation urges us not to think well of the widows but to scold those who were responsible for their dire economic and social circumstances. Those are good and apt readings of our passages, important to ponder, productive for noting. But I think today I side with the slant of the lectionary: There will not lack poor with whom we can share resources: oil, meal and kindling for some, cash gifts for others. Let’s do that. But these gifts of compassion, where the widows continue to be generous despite everything, offer an even greater invitation to us, which Jesus himself seems to recognize and learn from, be inspired by. Give from our substance, give it generously, compassionately.