A Tale of Two Widows
First Reading 1 Kings 17:8-16
Psalm Psalm 146
Second Reading Hebrews 9:24-28
Gospel Mark 12:38-44
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be always acceptable unto you, Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
We often think of our life of faith as a journey. The thing about journeys is they can offer many ways to get to the destination. And if you are not exactly sure where you are going, as they say, any road will take you there. As people of faith, we have a sense of the destination. We have the roadmaps of scripture, tradition, and reason, but the turn-by-turn directions can seem a little vague. We know how we think we ought to act. We are pretty clear what roads we should not venture down. At least when we encounter glimpses of the kingdom of God breaking through, we hopefully know it when we see it. All of this helps guide us on our journey, discerning the many twists and turns. Still, we can all wander, led down paths of decoys and distraction, and need to reorient.
A lonely widow was terribly distraught at the death of her cat, Homer. She called her Episcopal priest and asked him to perform a burial service for her beloved pet. The priest understood that every life is sacred, created by God, and deserves to be laid to rest and commended to God. He also knew this widow needed pastoral care and closure to say goodbye to her best friend. But, he was busy with parish business, and went down the path of “can’t be bothered’ by a cat funeral. He referred the widow to the local Methodist pastor. They’ll do that sort of thing. And the phone call ended. About 30 minutes later, the widow called back. The priest asked if she had made arrangements. “Well,” she said, “ the Methodist pastor referred me to the Baptist preacher, who referred me to a Presbyterian minister, who referred me to the local Rabbi, who referred me to back to you. I just want a simple service for my dear Homer, and want to give $1,000 to the church that will help me lay him to rest.” The priest quickly replied, “Why didn’t you tell me that Homer was an Episcopal cat?”
Sometimes our GPS needs ‘recalculating.’ Whatever motivation leads us back to a faithful journey, the important thing is to be heading toward God’s dream for humanity, loving and caring for each other and reconciling with God. Today scripture tells us a tale of two widows. One is firm in her faith, and clear about her path. The other needs some encouragement, perhaps a new direction. But that’s the thing about our journey of faith ... if we are open to God’s guidance, God will lead us on the path to life in God’s kingdom.
The prophet Elijah was sent to Zarephath by God, and told a widow there would care for him. Certainly tired and hungry from the journey, Elijah encountered a widow at the city gate and asked her to get him some water and a morsel of bread. While a simple request, it is also a bit presumptuous. Widows, if they did not remarry, typically had no means of economic support. Widows had no rights of inheritance in ancient Israel. They did not have a fixed income; they lived with a broken income. If not supported by other family, or the king, or the religious community, widows were often reduced to poverty and forced to become scavengers or beggars.
When Elijah encounters this widow, she has a handful of meal and a little oil, and is gathering sticks for fire to go home to cook what little she has so she and her son may “eat it and die.” Talk about passive aggressive. Perhaps she is exaggerating that this is to be their last meal; perhaps not. The prophet addresses her fear first, “Do not be afraid.” He informs her they are under God’s care, and she is to have faith and follow his instructions. Her faith is tiny and reluctant, but what does she have to lose? She does what God has instructed through Elijah. The jar of meal does not empty, the jar of oil does not fail, and they all eat for many days. Though the Law requires care of widows and strangers and orphans, when humanity fails, God provides.
Jesus also encounters a widow. But first, he notices the activity of the scribes. Scribes were proficient in reading and writing contracts and other administrative documents and knowledgeable in the Law, thus should be suited to take an active role in Jewish society and uphold the law. The scribes should be on the front line of defending and caring for widows and orphans and strangers, but are not. Jesus suggests the scribes are ostentatious, drawing attention to themselves and “glad handing” in public places so they might be seen, securing their reputation as important persons. The scribes offering is not for care for others, but to their own self-importance.
Then Jesus notices people giving money to the treasury for Temple worship. Some put in large sums, as the rich were obligated to give proportionately. A poor widow approaches, and puts in two copper coins. A penny. The denomination is estimated at 1/64th of a day laborers wages. Jesus calls his disciples together. This is our cue to pay close attention.
Jesus’ judgement of the situation: the rich can easily give much because they suffer no real harm in doing so, but the poor person that gives despite his or her deficiency is the more generous giver. The widow’s giving is barely noticed by others, has no ulterior motives, and is given with sincerity, generosity, and faith. The widow gives everything she has, ‘all she has to live on.” Literally translated, she gives “her whole life.”
One widow is encouraged to faith and receives blessings. Another widow’s extravagant faith knows no limit, and cannot be contained. As we journey and discern how we are called to love and care for and serve others and give of ourselves, we must determine how we respond to God’s blessings. At times we all need encouragement. Other times we are overwhelmed by God’s abundance and respond accordingly.
If one spends just a little time on the streets in relationship with our homeless brothers and sisters, we see them helping one another, guiding each other to places that serve a meal, or hand out warm clothes as the weather turns colder. They have little to offer, but they give of everything they have. They offer love and care for one another in their journey of survival.
For those of us materially blessed, we might give more because we have more. Is our purpose in giving to receive the benefit of God’s care, or to participate in God’s care of others? Do we calculate how much we give based on what we can afford, what won’t be missed out of our budget? Or do we dive deeply into God’s abundance and give even more? Are we giving God our leftovers or are we giving of our first fruits?
The gifts we give to the work of God’s people are a sacred offering of our faith. Our gifts should be a response to God’s radical gifts to humanity. God sacrificed the life of Jesus Christ for the sake of humanity. In discerning our gifts of time, talent, and treasure, we are called to get in touch with the concept of sacrifice. If gifts are only received, then the cycle of generosity ends. Gifts are meant to be to be given. So give. Give until it hurts. Then keep giving until it feels good. We just might approach the widow’s generosity and faith, giving everything we have, all we have to live on, our whole life.
We celebrate God’s blessings today, outward and visibly represented by commitments to our stewardship campaign. We will continue to receive pledges because God’s blessings continue. As we follow our journey of faith, let us continue to give, share, love, and care, as God continues to do likewise. We just might get a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven. Amen.