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The Godly Widows

A Reflection of the Sunday readings

By Fr. Ron

There are two scenes in today’s gospel reading. Both are meant to prod our consciences and to make us think.

The first scene is Jesus lambasting the scribes and Pharisees. The gospel passage begins with Jesus challenging them. They are often a thorn in the side of Jesus. They are disturbed by him because Jesus can see right through their hypocrisy.

As Jesus sits in the temple, he sees them all coming in. These scribes and Pharisees stream in with callous disdain for the “little people” who struggle to find a place in the temple. These scribes and Pharisees had an exaggerated sense of their own importance. They had a flagrant disregard for the needs of the poor.

The Jewish historian, Josephus, who commented on this historical period, mentions that they would often take advantage of older women who were widows. Without a husband or father to protect them, they would convince many of these vulnerable women to support them. And when one widow’s finances ran out, they would move on to the next.

The words of Jesus are addressed to the crowd, but their real target is the scribes and Pharisees as he says:

"Beware of the scribes, who like to go around in long robes and accept greetings in the marketplaces, seats of honor in synagogues, and places of honor at banquets.They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext recite lengthy prayers. They will receive a very severe condemnation."

The second part of today’s gospel passage is a story about a widow who comes to the temple and puts a donation in the temple treasury. This story is juxtaposed to the story of another widow in today’s first reading from the 1st book of Kings. In both cases these widows lived in abject poverty.

What is striking is not what they give. The widow of Zarephath gives the prophet Elijah a small loaf of bread. The widow in the gospel puts just a few pennies in the temple treasury.

What is striking is that they both give so generously of the little they have. Both women let go of the only things they have to keep them alive. And so for each the gift that she gave was a true gift from her heart.

Here you have the story of two women whose hearts were so loving that they never counted the cost of what they gave. And because it was so little, the Scribes and Pharisees would pay little notice to them – but Jesus noticed. Jesus points out this poor widow to his disciples and teaches them a lesson about generosity and self-giving.

In Hebrew the word for “widow” is “almanah.” The word is derived from the word “alem” which means “unable to speak.” Without a husband to speak for her or secure her rights, the widow was alem, “reduced to silence.”

Isn’t it striking that these two widows, these two “silent ones,” speak the loudest to us today? Their actions speak very loudly to us. They instruct us on the capacity of the human heart to rise above the sometimes unfairness of life and learn instead to become more compassionate and generous in all aspects of life.

The lessons in these stories are obvious. The first points out the need for a clear willingness to give, regardless of how small the gift might be. The giving depicted here springs from generosity of heart, not simply financial advantage.

A second lesson concerns religious devotion. The widow of Zarephath was a woman of faith. She trusted in the words of the prophet. The woman in the gospel who came to the temple was also a woman of faith. She sought to do her part in temple support.

The third lesson is that we have a responsibility to care for others. Despite her own wretched situation, the first woman cared for not only her son who depended upon her. She also showed care for the prophet for whom she had no personal responsibility. In the story of the other widow in the gospel, some of the temple donations went for the support of temple personnel. These women show that in genuine giving you do not always have the opportunity to decide how your money will be used. One simply gives where there is need.

There are many ways that we can all 'give until it hurts.' Monetary giving is only one of them.

We can first give our care and interest to others. This is not as easy as it sounds, particularly in societies that value getting ahead and personal satisfaction above all else. There are people who simply dismiss the concerns of others as unimportant or “not something I need to think about.”

Despite the obstacles we might encounter, we can share our talents with others in our families, our neighborhoods, and our parish churches. We can give our time and our energy in schools, in hospitals, and in soup kitchens. Sometimes it is much easier to give money than to give of ourselves in ways that commit us to do more.

However, there are many people in our world who are as generous as these widows were. Like the woman from Zarephath, they are committed to the well-being of their children. Many parents willingly sacrifice their own interests so that their children have what they need and some of what they want. There are people who work long hours in healthcare facilities, making sure that the needs of patients and residents are being met. Public servants such as firefighters place themselves at risk in order to ensure our safety. Those who minister in the church often do so no financial reward and sometimes with little hope of appreciation from those whom they serve.

The ultimate example of unselfish giving is Jesus, the perfect victim offered himself to God for our sakes (as we were reminded in today’s 2nd reading). He gave until he had no more to give. He sacrificed his own interests for our good; he devoted himself to our healing; he gave his life that we might live, and he did all this with little hope of appreciation. He is our model and inspiration.

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