Why was this so radical in the 1960s? Prior to Vatican II, ordinary Catholics were actively discouraged from reading the Bible. Careful, if you read it, you’ll get it wrong. (Really?) Another form of clerical elitism held over for centuries from the days when most common folk were illiterate.
Back in the day, 15th century, while church hierarchy clearly felt threatened by the technological innovation of the printing press, Martin Luther and Gutenberg saw possibility and promise. Printing press . . . Bible . . . everyone! No wonder our Protestant sisters and brothers have so much more biblical prowess than we Catholics! Well, it took the Catholic church 450+ years to get over itself and actually encourage the faithful to read the Word, reflect on it, and interpret it to the community.
But on the positive side, over the decades since Vat II, Dei Verbum has prompted other official church statements and documents on the Bible. One of which was published in the 1994 called The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church by the Pontifical Biblical Commission. It’s an official Vatican document! And here’s the most radical statement in there (and it truly is!):
“The entire biblical tradition and, in a particular way, the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels indicates as privileged hearers of the word of God those whom the world considers people of lowly status. . . . Those who in their powerlessness and lack of human resources find themselves forced to put their trust in God alone and in his justice have a capacity for hearing and interpreting the word of God which should be taken into account by the whole church”
Those who find themselves at the end of their rope and have no where to turn—like the widow who hosted Elijah at Zarephath—are privileged hearers of the Word and we should all listen to them.
Perhaps my favorite Old Testament story.
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, for that very last bit of food she is preparing.
How would you respond if a stranger requested 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 here: 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. That’s where the Word of God comes alive, and you become one of those privileged hearers.
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 . . .
Let’s move to the Gospel story and talk a bit about 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?
What’s the basic take away?
Strip away the politics, the ego, the maneuvering, even the suspense and intrigue, and what’s left? Poverty and hunger. 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.
Last Saturday, a key headline that emerged from our Leadership Retreat was the need not just to remember, but to reclaim our call and charism to care for those in need, the poor and lowly. And not just to care for them, but to journey with them and listen to them. After all, the Vatican itself tells us they are privileged hearers of the Word of God.
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.
Make me wonder: how much of God’s Word am I missing or getting wrong because I am not listening to those who are privileged hearers?