We begin our reflection this Sunday with a passage from the First Book of Kings. A severe drought had struck the Middle East and many were in peril of starvation. In this account the prophet Elijah was about to enter the city of Zarephath. He was tired and hungry from traveling. He saw a widow gathering sticks and asked her for a cup of water which she readily went off to get for him. But he shouted after her to bring a piece of bread, too. She confessed that she only had a handful of flour and a bit of oil. She had intended to make a small bread cake that she would share with her son. After that there was no more food.
Elijah pressed her to feed him first; she and her son could eat later. He promised her that her jar of flour wouldn’t go empty, and that her jug of oil wouldn’t go dry if she extended this gesture of hospitality. She trusted the prophet and shared her bit of bread with him. Elijah’s promise came true. Her flour and oil lasted until the end of the drought.
Mark’s Gospel mirrors this account in the scene we’ve read today. He tells of an impoverished widow who came to the treasury of the temple to offer a donation. Jesus pointed the widow out as a model of selfless giving and noted that she had given all she had to live on.
We have two powerful images of generosity and trust to think about this week. But we also have two powerful images of spiritual bankruptcy.
Mark introduced the account of the poor widow with a scathing condemnation of the religious leadership. “Beware of the scribes, who like to go around in long robes and accept greetings in the marketplaces, seats of honor in synagogues, and places of honor at banquets. They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext recite lengthy prayers. They will receive a very serious condemnation.” He then ends the account with a disturbing proclamation. “Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.”
Sometimes the Gospel message brings us peace of mind or hope or a joy in realizing God’s loving relationship with us. Sometimes it makes us uncomfortable. Both are important. Today’s Gospel makes all of us, clerics and laity, quite uncomfortable.
Jesus’ condemnation of the scribes is a warning to religious leaders about the temptations posed by privilege. The scribes basked in their privilege and entitlement. Some of them even used their celebrity status to extort payment from widows for advice they’d give them. They who considered themselves examples of holiness were, in reality, the spiritually bankrupt.
Though we can identify elements of this same dynamic within the ranks of Christian leadership, we must take care not to be complicit by buying into the dynamic. Pope Francis has often condemned this element in the Church by pointing to the presence of clericalism and triumphalism among the clergy. The Church, lay and clerical, needs to take heed. Jesus called for a servant Church. We all need to be on our knees washing each other’s feet.
The poor widow’s model of generosity is a meant to disturb every one of us, rich and poor alike. By offering all the money she had to live on, she was placing herself totally in God’s hands. This was a pure act of righteousness. Some of the wealthy people in the temple with her that day were ostentatiously placing their money into the large golden trumpets used to collect donations for the temple Their donations, too, were representations of their self-giving. But they offered to God only what was unessential to their lives – “their surplus wealth.” Their reward was a caressed ego and the admiration of the adoring crowd.
We conclude this reflection with a phrase that Jesus would often use after a teaching, “Whoever has ears, ought to hear.”