The Wisdom of Widows
Father Pat Griffin of the Eastern Province of the Congregation of the Mission writes on FamVin of the generosity of the poor in The Wisdom of Widows. His reflection serves as a backdrop to the challenge of St. John Paul II to Americans gathered in Yankee Stadium in 1979.
“The poor of the United States and of the world are your brothers and sisters in Christ. You must never be content to leave them just the crumbs from the feast. You must take of your substance, and not just of your abundance, in is order to help them. And you must treat them like guests at your family table.”
One can easily discern the thinking of the authors of the Lectionary in bringing together the two stories which were proclaimed on this past Sunday. We heard two tales about widows and unmatched generosity. I cannot help but to be drawn to Jesus’ telling of the actions of the widow and her mite in the Gospel. It seems like such an important example for him in teaching his followers about the meaning of discipleship. Yet the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath remains compelling.
One can imagine the situation of this woman and her son. The drought which had afflicted the land had brought suffering into the lives of many people, and especially the poor. She had made ends meet to the best of her ability for some time, but now she had only the remnant at the bottom of her jar of flour and jug of oil. One can envision simply some dust of grain and a little moisture of olive remained between her family and starvation. Into this situation arrives the prophet Elijah. He makes an extraordinary request of her, even knowing her desperate situation. “Before you make something for your family to eat, make something for me to eat.” Difficult as it is to conceive of these words emerging from his mouth, they do. The judgment as well as the generosity of the woman comes into play. What will she do? Does the request of this hungry man carry weight at the expense of her son’s life (not to mention her own)?
The story suggests to us a meditation on the generosity of the poor, the kinds of demands that a “prophet” places on a people, and the cost of trust in God’s care. In some ways, one might characterize it as a confrontation of the pragmatic vs. the providential.
Without fail, those who have had regular contact with the poor have experienced their generosity. Even though a family may have little to eat, they “kill the fatted calf” to provide for an honored guest. Sometimes, when one knows (or suspects) the whole story, embarrassment can fill the visitor because of this hidden extravagance. Missionaries and ministers to those who are poor can tell these types of experiences with ease and energy. The truth emphasizes the willingness of the poor to share what they have and unequally with those who come among them to speak of the Lord. In Sunday’s Gospel, our Scriptures held out to us the examples of the widow and her mite; we can also look to the story of the boy with the barley loaves, and many others. The poor can give of themselves and their resources with an open hand.
The “prophet” places demands even on those who have little. Jesus employs the action of the widow with her mite as the model for altruism. The truth always recognizes the existence of someone who has less than a particular person. Charity, which places another in the place of special care, benefits the poor as well as the rich. In proclaiming the Gospel, the missionary must speak this word with clarity and without embarrassment. The smallness of the gift does not define the issue, but the largeness of the heart which provides. Jesus tells those who would choose to be his disciples to “sell all and come follow me.” That holds true for every follower. The poor should not be denied the opportunity to be generous, even in their limited way.
The widow of Zarephath must place her trust in the words which the prophet Elijah speaks to her in order to act in this situation. When she does, her faith is rewarded. That benefit, however, does not describe the experience of everyone who trusts. Sometimes the Lord has a different plan, and that too requires acceptance. Jesus’ surrender of himself to the will of the Father which leads to the cross provides a parade example of trust in the Divine care and the path which it may take.
The story of the Widow of Zarephath with the prophet Elijah makes us thoughtful and invites us to consider the cost and meaning of generosity. The lesson stands comfortably beside that of the widow and her mite. We are taught by their wisdom and trust.