It would be easy enough to draw certain typical (and true) lessons from this week’s Gospel. We might say that people ought to be religious from their heart, and not for show. And they ought to give from their necessities, and not just from their excess. On the other hand, there remain many “places of honors” in our Catholic communities that people love to occupy, and I’ve never heard a homily in which a priest proposed this kind of commitment to the parish capital campaign or annual diocesan appeal. Thus, the gospel reading should actually bring us up short: we actually do like lengthy prayers and places of honor, and we certainly like restricting any giving we do to our surplus wealth. So, are we just hypocrites?
Maybe we are. And maybe today’s readings should pack a stronger punch. After all, they fall near the end of the liturgical year, at a place in Mark’s Gospel where the tensions between Jesus and the authorities have been heightening. This story, like a number that are omitted from the lectionary, occurs in a lengthy two-chapter sequence of Jesus in the Jerusalem Temple area, where he appears to take on all comers. It’s tension-filled – and Mark places this story last in his Temple sequence, right before Jesus foretells the destruction of the Temple itself.
I think the punch is heightened if we better grasp the context of the first reading, about Elijah. The composers of the lectionary seem to want to pair these two widows with one another, highlighting their generosity. But there’s more to the story. The widow in the story is dying because of a drought that has been called down on Israel by Elijah himself, as a punishment for Israel’s turn to the worship of Baals. But the widow, at least if we (according to the New Jerome Biblical Commentary) credit the geographical details in the text, isn’t even an Israelite. She’s squarely in Baal-worshipping land. Later on, Elijah even intercedes on behalf of her son when her son is dying, and God brings him back to life.
So this widow is more than just generous. Her acknowledgment of and obedience to God’s prophet, Elijah, marks her out as the authentically faithful one, in contrast to the kings and other (ostensibly religious) leaders who give Elijah a great deal of trouble elsewhere in the story. The story is not just about money or resources; it’s about worship, about what it means to be truly devoted to God. Both widows, in all their weakness and limited resources, have a sort of faith that the establishment can’t match.
Why is this? I don’t know, but I know enough from this to allow myself to be disturbed. It might be that situations of poverty and desperation, of limited resources instead of unlimited possibilities, force trade-offs that make you clear-headed about where you should put your trust. Or maybe it’s too easy for those of us with status and resources to basically trust in those resources, and thus trust in the religious displays those resources allow us to make. The performance becomes the essence of our faith, in ways the widows cannot conceive. And yet, who would wish drought and desperation on anyone?
Perhaps the way to bridge this challenge is to ask: how is God inviting us to stretch ourselves, to go outside a comfort zone, to put ourselves at some risk – trusting in God’s care and deliverance? Where in my life is obedience potentially costly, and how is staying within the comfortable religious performance zone more preferable than risking that cost? The widows – outcasts in a patriarchal society, we should always remind ourselves – dramatically show us the way.