Concerns about the economic teachings of Pope Francis, that he is a Marxist for instance, are bandied about whenever he criticizes unfettered capitalism. These concerns ought to be forwarded to a higher source, since the pope’s critique stems not from modern political divisions but from the biblical call to offer justice to those in need. For it is God “who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry…. He upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.”
The prophet Elijah demonstrates God’s concern for those economically oppressed when he goes to see the widow of Zarephath, a single mother, and asks for water and bread. The request seems thoughtless initially, for the widow has only a little food for her and her son, and it is about to run out. She asks Elijah to let her “go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.”
Elijah instructs her to make the food as she had planned, but he asks that she “first make me a little cake.” Elijah promises her that God has spoken and her food will be abundant, that she will not run out of grain or oil. The widow prepared what little food she had for the prophet and, true to God’s word, she was rewarded with an abundance.
The clarity of the widow of Zarephath giving all to God and being rewarded with abundance is, however, muddied in the Gospel account of another widow, who gives all of her money to the Temple treasury.
Just prior to this passage, Jesus has said, “Beware of the scribes,” who “devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
Immediately after giving this warning, Jesus sits down by the treasury and watches “many rich people put in large sums.” Then “a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.” Jesus tells his disciples that “this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
Whereas Elijah asks for a little sustenance from the widow and returns God’s generosity to her and her son in abundance, here the widow has given “all she had to live on,” and it is not clear what she will receive from God’s representatives at the Temple.
There are two ways to look at her action. The first, in light of the story of the widow of Zarephath, is that since she has given all to God, she will likewise be rewarded, even if Jesus does not mention this. She demonstrated a love of God and love of neighbor by giving all she had to the Temple treasury. By doing so, she has acted on her belief that God will care for her and that she will rely on her neighbors to make God’s care for her known in her life.
The second is that this is an instance of how “widows’ houses” are devoured by taking advantage of her religious piety. While the widow models “giving until it hurts,” who will supply her economic needs now or ameliorate her pain? Is Jesus praising her action by drawing attention to it or grieving that no one else would give all for God’s sake? Has the widow’s religiosity been exploited? Should it be the Temple and those who serve the Temple—or, in our context today, the church and those who serve the church—who give to the poor widow? We know that God gave abundantly to the widow of Zarephath through Elijah, but who will supply this widow’s economic needs?
Jesus is not focused on simply criticizing first-century Jewish scribes. After all, earlier a scribe is described by Jesus as “not far from the kingdom of God” (Mk 12:34). But Jesus is drawing our attention to the fact that it is the duty of God’s representatives to serve those in need. The issue for Christians today is to ask not only how we might model the widow’s generosity to God but how we can imitate God’s generosity toward the widow and those like her who have given all to God’s service.