Today marks the 100th anniversary year of the Armistice that ended combat in the first truly World War – reputedly the last, according to the politicians of the day. In fact, it was only a prelude to the even costlier and more appalling Second World War and lesser wars that followed. Humankind does not learn easily. And as wildfires rage over California, so soon after the dreadful shootings in Thousand Oaks last Wednesday, we can’t be oblivious to the fate of the casualties, and not least the widows and orphans who are the subsequent victims of such catastrophes. Today’s scripture calls us to keep them in mind – and also to come to their aid.
The epistle and gospel readings continue those selected for this time of year, called “ordinary” by someone who had no clue about election years. In any case, we need to pay particular
attention to the first reading, which is especially chosen to point up the gospel. It’s about a widow and an orphan, one of the most important themes of Hebrew scripture. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus refers to this story in his first sermon, which manages to turn the whole town against him [Luke 4:25-26]. Like Medicare and Medicaid today, talking about widows and orphans was a sure way to stir up strong feelings.
Then, far more than now, widows and orphans faced a very difficult life, as they had few rights and, apart from the charity of their relatives and generous benefactors, no way of supporting themselves. And, more to the point, no way of repaying the kindness of strangers. For that reason, the welfare of widows and orphans, and for good measure, please note, the resident political refugee, was typically taken as an index of the spiritual health of the whole nation by the prophets and in today’s gospel, by Jesus.
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 sojourner, 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 aren’t listening or just don’t learn.
The gospel begins where we left off last Sunday. Jesus is quick to point out that despite the wisdom of the passing scribe and his recognition of the need to love our neighbor as ourselves, we don’t often do that in practice. Beware, Jesus says later in Mark’s account, 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” [Mark 13:38-40].
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 as a sacrifice to God because she, unlike the others, gave not out of her surplus, but out of her poverty. 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, is dramatized in an event in Luke’s gospel that is not found in the other gospels, a story that points us back directly to another event in the life of Elijah and the poor widow of Zarephath we heard about the in the first reading. Shortly after 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].
Lord Acton, the great English Catholic of the nineteenth century, insisted that “The most certain test by which we judge whether a country is really free is the amount of security enjoyed by minorities.”* 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, and I hazard to guess, history, their welfare is our welfare.
The elections are over, all but the recounts and lawsuits anyway, but the time for vigilance is not. Now, more than ever, with winter fast 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.”
* John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, “The History of Freedom in Antiquity,” Essays on Freedom and Politics, selected and pref. by Gertrude Himmelfarb, Boston: Beacon Press, 1948, p. 33.