November 11, 2018
I find three specific challenges in our readings today:
1. A call to radical hospitality.
2. A warning against privilege.
3. A call to end hunger and poverty.
(Just three minor, simple things to address!)
1. A call to radical hospitality.
The story of the widow’s encounter with Elijah at Zarephath is perhaps my favorite Old Testament story. Am not sure why, but it tugs my heart every time I hear it.
As you heard, the widow and her child are so poor that they have reached the end of the line. She gathers sticks to make a small fire, to bake the last of her food, and then the two shall die. But the prophet Elijah enters the scene, asks her for water, and, of all things, asks for that very last bit of food she is preparing.
How would you respond if a stranger asked for what you are sure is your last meal? Even more challenging, how would you respond to the stranger if you are sure it’s your child’s last meal?
The widow responds by giving all that she has, trusting in Elijah’s prophecy that “The jar of flour shall not go empty, nor the jug of oil run dry, until the day when the LORD sends rain upon the earth."
There are two miracles in this story: first, the widow’s extraordinary hospitality, and second, the promise of a never-ending supply of flour and oil comes true. But of course, the second miracle—the one that wows us—is dependent on the first. In order for Elijah to be a true prophet, to effectively be the comforting and encouraging voice of God to the people amidst their famine, the widow had to emulate the radical hospitality of God, by giving of her whole self, essentially her whole life and the life of her child.
I can’t really see myself giving my absolute last bit of food and drink, but on some occasions, I have known that feeling of being stretched to the limit. I imagine you have too. Called to give at precisely the moment when you feel you have nothing left to give. That’s where we meet God face to face.
Makes me wonder: in what way I am called to radical hospitality in order for a nearby ‘prophet’ to be God’s voice today. How am I called to give of the essence of myself in such a way that another reveals the face of God. Have to cook on that . . .
2. A warning against claiming privilege, particularly religious privilege.
Our gospel story pits the poor widow against the religious scribes. The widow may not have grasped all that was going on, but Jesus did. As he seated himself across from the treasury, he was aware of all duplicity, and did not miss a thing.
Here’s how the Temple treasury worked:
Like many common folk, the widow of our story prayed to God in her desperate circumstances. She was utterly destitute, and was lead to believe that if she sent the right prayers, she would be saved.
And who is there to help with those prayers but the scribes who presume to know the ins and outs of divine favor. But of course, there is a fee, and the longer the prayers the more the fee. All concern for the widow is pretense for enriching the self.
Point of the story is not so much the extraordinary gift of the widow—although that is certainly not to be ignored—but rather there is a particular and explicit warning here:
against claiming privilege at the expense of the vulnerable,
against saying one thing and doing another,
against love of self that supersedes love of neighbor,
against praying purely for show.
The gospel tells us nothing about the fate of the widow. We don’t know what becomes of her. But that’s not the point of the story. The point is to show the contrast between the thin, shallow, manipulative faith of the scribes, and the authentic, trusting, through-in-through faith of the vulnerable widow.
Makes me wonder, in what measure am I a Christian in appearance? In what measure an authentic Christian?
3. Work to end hunger and poverty.
Finally, we must recognize the glaring fact that these readings provoke us to reflect on the causes of hunger and poverty, and urge us to do all in our power to end them. This work is not optional, not ‘extra credit’, not something to get to later. It’s constitutive to the Gospel. It’s what it means to be Christian. Period.
Makes me wonder: how many hungry people have I encountered in the last week, the last month, but didn’t know it because I’m too focused on my own needs?
Makes me wonder: how much poverty have I failed to see, even though it’s right in front of me? If I acknowledge it, I have to do something about it.
Such work will require me, us, like the two women in our readings today, to pretty much give . . . all that we have. But first, I believe we must simply find the places and experiences in our lives where we resonate with these two women. For me, as I mentioned, that means reflecting on those times of being stretched to my limit, called upon to give, but truly believing I cannot give anything more, and simply abandoning myself to God’s care . . . and discovering there really was more there. In those rare, painful moments, I catch a glimpse of God’s idea for me.