Some years ago on an immersion trip in Brazil with an ecumenical group of professors and theology students, I had an opportunity to visit a community of subsistence farmers who had taken over a segment of land. They were growing their own food and had created a vibrant community. The stories of their struggles tugged at our hearts, but nothing touched me more than the offer of hospitality from a widow who had three small children and who had prepared what seemed an extravagant feast, given how little she had to live on. As a well-fed person of privilege I didn’t want to take the food from her children’s mouths, yet to refuse her hospitality seemed an even bigger crime.
In the first reading today, there is a similar story of a widow who is down to her last handful of flour and a tiny bit of oil. She is just about to try to eke out something for her son and herself to eat, certain it will be their last meal. While gathering sticks at the entrance of the city, the widow encounters Elijah, who asks her first for a cup of water and then for a bit of bread. She explains her situation, and Elijah’s response seems initially to be incredibly insensitive. He asks her to bring him a little cake, even before she prepares something for herself and her son. What the biblical author does not recount is the kind of conflict such a request must have produced for the widow. Should she trust Elijah’s God, whom the prophet insists will ensure that her jar of flour will not go empty nor the jug of oil run dry? Or should she follow her motherly instincts to feed her child first? The obligations of hospitality win out; she gives all she had to live on. Miraculously, the prophet’s promise of a never-ending supply of flour and oil comes true.
In the Gospel, we see a similar vignette of a widow who puts her last two coins, a paltry sum, into the Temple treasury. Jesus comments that, in contrast to those who gave from their surplus, her contribution was “all she had to live on.” Literally, the Greek says she “gave her whole life.” On the one hand, we see in this woman one who embodies Jesus’ gift of his whole self. As this episode is positioned just before the passion narrative, it appears that Jesus’ words are laudatory of the widow’s total self-gift from her position of want, held out as a model for Jesus’ disciples.
Another way to understand the Gospel is to see that the widow’s action comes on the heels of Jesus’ critique of scribes who thrive on their privileges and seek out honor. Worst of all, they “devour the houses of widows.” It is not clear to what practices this phrase refers, but the scribes may be the ancient equivalent of televangelists who bilk unsuspecting widows of their last dollars. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is very critical of the temple institution and he warns his disciples not to ever be the kind of leader who would prey on those who are most vulnerable.
In these readings there is a particular warning to religious leaders not to exploit those who are poorest. There is also an invitation to all the faithful to emulate the hospitality of God, whose total gift of self is replicated in Jesus’ self-surrender in love. In no way does such a stance glorify poverty, for throughout the Gospel we see Jesus’ intense efforts to raise up those who are poorest. Rather, these readings provoke reflection on and analysis of the causes of hunger and poverty, urging us to do all in our power to eradicate them. Such work takes everything we have.