This week, I was ambushed by a juxtaposition of images broadcast on several news channels. The first revealed the desperate plight of the people of Madagascar, where unprecedented hunger and malnutrition threaten the lives of both children and adults. The second was a special on smashing pumpkins – many thousands of them, happily doomed to landfill and compost pits now that Hallowe’en is safely past. I found myself wondering how those wasted pumpkins could have affected world hunger, especially in hard to reach places such as Madagascar and Yemen.
Pumpkins are food, highly nutritious food at that, bursting (all too literally now) with low-calorie, healthy pulp, amazingly rich in fiber, the essential vitamins A and C, minerals, including important antioxidants such as beta-carotene, copper, and cryptoxanthins,. Pumpkin helps protect against age-related eye problems such as macular degeneration, reduces the risk of obesity, diabetes, and overall mortality, especially from prostate and colon cancer, helps avoid diabetes and heart disease, regulates blood pressure, promotes a healthy complexion and hair, and increases energy.
In short, pumpkin is a wonder food. Imagine what it could contribute toward alleviating starvation and malnutrition in Madagascar, Yemen, and parts of Central America. In fact, hunger is on the rise globally, affecting 10 percent of people throughout the world. Between 2019 and 2020 it is estimated that the number of those suffering from malnutrition also grew by up to 161 million, mainly because of conflict, climate change, especially drought and flood, and the COVID-19 pandemic. [https://www.actionagainsthunger.org/world-hunger-facts-statistics]
What has this to do with today’s readings? Quite a lot. The treatment of widows and orphans, like that of political
refugees and those afflicted with various diseases, especially preoccupied the ethics of ancient Judaism and Jesus’ own teaching and ministry. The point is simple: how we treat those desperately in need of aid is a measure of our standing in respect to the justice and love of God.
Again, today’s gospel begins where we left off last Sunday. Both Mark and Luke turn at this point to an event in Jesus’ life that occurred while he was teaching in the Temple. It focuses on one of these widows, a nameless old woman who offers everything she had to God because she, unlike the others tossing their coins into the treasure box, gave not out of her surplus, but out of her need. 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.
We are prepared for the gospel by the first reading about the prophet Elijah and the poor widow of Zarephath. Seeking refuge from his enemies, Elijah approaches the woman and asks for a scrap of food. She tells him that she has only a tiny amount, after which she and her son will starve. Elijah assures her that God will look after her. She believes him and gives him the last of her food supply. She is blessed with an abundance of flour and oil which last for a year.
In his gospel Luke relates that Jesus recalled the story of the widow of Zarephath in his first sermon, comparing her faith to the disbelief of his own townspeople. That turns the whole town against him, but he manages to escape their wrath [Luke 4:25-26].
Jesus knew, of course, that widows and orphans had a very difficult life. By then, his own mother may have been a widow. They had few rights and, apart from the charity of relatives and 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, like that of the halt, blind, and lame, was taken to be an index of the spiritual health of the whole nation by the prophets and clearly by Jesus.
One of his greatest miracles, like that of Elijah, who restored the widow of Zarephath’s little boy to life, was performed for a poor widow of the town of Nain. As Luke recounts, “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. ‘Young man,’” he said simply, “‘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.].
The same concern runs throughout the whole of Scripture, from Exodus to the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, often, as we see in today’s gospel, as a warning to the avaricious: “…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.
Today, we too are called to consider 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 still the most vulnerable, especially in this “richest nation on earth” 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.
Each year about forty percent of food produced in the United States is wasted. Worldwide, about one-third goes to waste. And yet widows, orphans, and refugees face starvation, even in rich countries where the wealthy and powerful look the other way. Surely, if we can get space tourists into orbit and send people to Mars, we can send unwanted pumpkins to the worlds poor. All it requires is the will to do so. [https://www.fao.org/food-loss-and-food-waste/flw-data]
Then, as the widow of Zarephath said, people might say of us too one day, “Now I know that you are of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”