Fr. Norm Bonneau, an Oblate Scripture scholar and liturgist, often when teaching Scripture courses would use the phrase: “What is happening, but what is really going on?” to encourage his students to go beyond the literal story in order to explore the faith meaning of a biblical narrative. It is a phase which could help us connect the story about the widow who faithfully fed the prophet Elijah during a time of famine and the story about the poor widow who drops her last two small copper coins into the temple treasury.
In the first narrative, Elijah asked a desperate widow who was on the brink of starvation to give him some water and bread. Then when this foreigner offers him hospitality, he promises that the God of Israel would keep him, the woman, and her young son, alive during the drought; her jar of flour would not go empty, or her jar of oil wouldn’t go dry.
In the second narrative, we find Jesus watching people putting money into the treasury. We must remember that the offerings made in the temple court were made to God. They were symbolic of one’s offering of oneself. When Jesus sees the woman put in two small coins, he recognizes that out of her poverty she has put in everything she had, her whole living. She has given herself totally, holding nothing back.
In Jesus’ day, widows represented the poor and vulnerable of society. In Jesus’ stories, they also represented the generous. What did they know that engendered such generosity? Perhaps it was their dependence on God’s good gifts for daily life and meaning? Perhaps it was their sensitivity for those without? Or maybe, because of life’s experiences, they were just more grateful for God’s abundance.
What is clear is that each of these women become an image of the divine for us. In the first story a compassionate woman offers a refugee who is fleeing both a drought and political danger a safe and secure place and in doing so, she saves his life. For the author of the narrative, she becomes a sign of a faithful God who is concerned for all who are oppressed and exploited, and emphasizes for us the correlation between almsgiving–the sign of justice–and the right disposition of the heart.
In the second story this vulnerable widow becomes an image of Jesus who will soon give all through the sacrifice of his own life on the cross. Like him, she was free enough to give her all. Jesus drew attention to her precisely to remind his disciples that the reign of God comes when a person recognises the oneness that God has created and responds to this sacred gift with acts of love, faith, and solidarity. Jesus can identify with her offering for it mirrors his own.
In a way these narratives are a powerful commentary on the commandment we heard last week when we gathered to celebrate the Eucharist; “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your strength, and all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.”
Today as I ponder this life-giving commandment, I am mindful of the unconditional and overwhelming love God has for the whole universe, our planet, and every living thing and person in the world.
My struggle is to allow this call to love to keep me mindful of God’s presence and allow God’s word to help me see the other and my world with new eyes. So often the busyness of daily life and the anxious concerns of a rapidly changing world can limit my vision and my response. “What does it mean to love your neighbour as yourself?” I think our answer would depend on our own image and experience of God. I believe in this context it means to be concerned about the well-being of the other, especially the poor and the vulnerable in our society.
Let me tell you a story about a widow named Virgie Alexander. She was a wise elder I met when I was living in small native community in the North who taught me what it means to love your neighbour as yourself. When anyone came to Virgie because they had no food, she would empty her fridge and freezer and give everything she had. At times, I would tell her to keep some for herself, but she would scold me with a frown and tell me to trust in God’s providence.
Even when members of the community would tell her that the people asking for help spend all their money foolishly and therefore don’t deserve any help, it didn’t stop her. When she saw a need, she was like the Good Samaritan — full of compassion she went out of her way to help. She was concerned for the well-being of the other; especially if they were suffering. This widow’s acts of charity and her total self-giving is a powerful example for us about how to love God with your whole heart and of loving your neighbour as yourself.
The mystery of poverty is that by sharing in it, making ourselves poor in giving to others, we increase our knowledge of and belief in love.
Also, let us ponder Jesus’ warning about how one’s abundance can blind a person to the present condition of global society, where injustices abound, and growing numbers of people are deprived of basic human rights and often exploited by a system that favours the rich and powerful. Let us examine our hearts to see if our self-reliance makes it difficult for us to stand in solidarity with the poorest of our brothers and sisters. May we not be like the scribes in today’s gospel but rather like the poor vulnerable widows whose acts of charity were acts of justice which witnessed to the divine call to love God with one’s whole heart and to love one’s neighbour as oneself. May we truly live gospel values in ways that bring about the reign of God in us and in our world.
Fr. Jim Bleackley, OMI
Pastor of St. Joseph’s Parish, Ottawa