In our society, one of the surest predictors of poverty is being a divorced wife or a child of divorced parents. In most societies (including our own before Social Security and Medicare), widowhood potentially exposes a widowed wife and her children to the danger of poverty. Of course, there have always been rich widows. Typically, however, a widow would have been dependent on her family. If her family had little or no accumulated wealth – if her husband had been an ordinary wage laborer, for example – then the widow would have had to depend on other relatives or on the wider community. That was why the Early Church maintained an Order of Widows – to provide for their needs and to enable them in turn to contribute to the life of the larger community. For all these reasons, therefore, widows have often served as a suitable shorthand symbol for poverty and dependence. Hence, the two widows we just heard about today.
The 1st widow, the pagan widow of Zarephath who provided hospitality to the prophet Elijah [1 Kings 17:10-16], was obviously poor – so much so that she told Elijah that she and her son were about to eat their last meal and then die. Generosity, however, often correlates inversely with one’s means. Despite her poverty, the widow provided hospitality to this prophet of a foreign God, and was well rewarded in return.
The widow in today’s Gospel got no immediate reward in the context of the Gospel account [Mark 12:38-44]. Her role in the story seems mainly to highlight the contrast between her poverty and the more affluent pilgrims who were donating much larger sums to the Temple. The point is not that their donations were not of value or not appreciated or that they were somehow insincere in their donations. The point is rather that, being prosperous, they could easily afford it, at no great cost to their quality of life (as we might say today). The widow, however, contributed to the Temple out of her limited, meager means – revealing the generosity of her spirit and the seriousness of her commitment to what the Temple represented in her community.
Perhaps few messages may seem more culturally challenging than the stories of those long-ago and far-away widows - and their counter-cultural (let alone counter-intuitive) message about being focused on something other than oneself and on one’s own individual needs, about not letting oneself and one’s all-important private world get in the way of one’s obligations to others and one’s connection with the larger human community. Ours is a society in which reality is increasingly subjective, in which the Individual has become the center of meaning and value, reducing family, community, and society to at-best secondary realities. Even churches sometimes seem more like clubs where like-minded or similarly situated individuals can feel good about themselves together.
It is often suggested that prosperity and religion do not coexist well together. The decline of religion in much of the developed world today is sometimes cited as confirmation of that claim. Right now, of course, we are all conscious of the economic stresses that same developed world is undergoing, but the fact remains that we have all been culturally conditioned by affluence. So we are forever being tempted to privilege what is individual and private and personal over what is common and shared and bigger than ourselves. Jesus’ words are a repeated challenge to us all to rediscover what generosity actually means, what it means to be connected with one another in a larger community, and what commitment to one another and such a community actually requires of us.
Jesus’ words are a challenge but also a lifelong invitation to what we can become – not just now but forever.
Homily for the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, November 11, 2012.