32nd Sunday of the Year
1 Kgs 17:10-16
It’s still ordinary time as the Church reckons things, but these days that mainly has meaning within these walls. If you have a hankering for early Christmas (skipping Thanksgiving), take a trip to your local Macy’s, where the Christmas tree went up last night to inaugurate the “holiday season.” Life beyond these walls seems anything but ordinary. In respect to widows and orphans, who occupy so much attention in today’s readings, there are certainly a lot more than when I was last here. More than last week even. And more grieving parents.
The treatment of widows and orphans was a touchy subject even in Jesus’ time. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus refers to the story of the widow of Zarephath in his first sermon. That manages to turn the whole town against him. [Luke 4:25-26.] In that world, far more than now, widows and orphans had a very difficult life. They had few rights and, apart from the charity of their relatives and generous benefactors, no way of supporting themselves. Or even of repaying the kindness of strangers. For that reason, the welfare of widows and orphans, and for good measure, the resident political refugee, the stranger in the land, was taken to be an index of the spiritual health of the whole nation by the prophets and also by Jesus. It usually wasn’t very good.
Throughout the Hebrew Bible, from Exodus to the Book of Malachi, we hear the refrain: “…I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the resident stranger, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts.” [Mal. 3:5]. The message is clear. Then why, you might wonder, do we need to hear it so often? The answer is that now, like then, we don’t really listen.
Today’s gospel begins where we left off last Sunday. Jesus is quick to point out that despite the wisdom of the scribe and his recognition of the need to love our neighbor as ourselves, we don’t often do that in practice. Beware, Jesus says, especially of those who parade themselves as religious but in fact devour widows’ houses, which is to say, deprive them of their life savings and only security. “They will receive the most severe sentence.”
Both Mark and Luke turn at this point to an event in Jesus’ life that focuses on one of these widows, a nameless old woman who offers just about everything she had to God because she, unlike the others, gave not out of her surplus, but out of her misery. If the poor are proportionately more generous than the wealthy, it is probably because they know what it is to depend on God alone for help.
Jesus’ compassion for widows, especially those who were childless and therefore without resources of any kind for their old age, points us back to another account of the poor widow of Zarephath we heard about the in the first reading. Shortly after the prophet Elijah came to live with her, her little boy fell ill and died.
So Elijah “carried him up into the upper chamber, where he lodged, and laid him upon his own bed. And he cried to the LORD, “O LORD my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I sojourn, by slaying her son?” Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried to the LORD, “O LORD my God, let this child’s soul come into him again.” And the LORD hearkened to the voice of Elijah; and the soul of the child came into him again, and he revived. And Elijah took the child, and brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and delivered him to his mother; and Elijah said, “See, your son lives.” And the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth.” [1 Kings 17:17-24]
Jesus must have remembered this story well, for he often refers to Elijah. And, as Luke tells it, once “as he drew near to the gate of the city, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow; and a large crowd from the city was with her. And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’ He came and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And, with a serene confidence so unlike the desperate efforts of Elijah, he said, ‘Young man, I say to you, arise.’ And the dead man sat up, and began to speak. And he gave him to his mother.” [Luke 7:12-15. Also see Luke 18:1-8.]
Today, we could do well to look to the well-being of single mothers and fatherless and motherless children for signs of our spiritual and political health, for of all minorities they are the most vulnerable, especially if they are also people of color, Native Americans, or recent immigrants. “…learn to do good,” Isaiah tells us, “seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.” [Isaiah 1:17] For in the eyes of God, their welfare is our welfare.
Now, with winter approaching and ordinary time running out, we should especially remember the needs of the poorest, the most vulnerable, the most wanting in political guarantees and the necessities of daily life. Then, as the widow of Zarephath said, people might say of us, too, “Now I know that you are of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth.”