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 was the great danger. It exposed a widowed wife and her children to the danger of poverty. Of course, there have always also been some rich widows. Typically, however, a widow would have been dependent on her family. If her family had little or no 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 [1 Kings 17:10-16], the pagan widow of Zarephath who provided hospitality to the prophet Elijah during a time of terrible drought, 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. Poor people are often among the most generous, however; and so, despite her desperate situation, the widow provided hospitality to this prophet of a foreign God - for which, as we just heard, she was well rewarded in return.
The widow in the Gospel [Mark 12:38-44] got no immediate reward in the Gospel story. Her role there seems mainly to highlight the contrast with the more affluent pilgrims who were donating much larger sums to the Temple. Jesus’ point was not that those pilgrims’ donations were not of value or were not appreciated or that the donors were somehow insincere in their donations. His point, rather, was that, being prosperous, they could more easily afford to be generous, at no great cost to their standard of living. 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 to her community.
We live in an era of self-centeredness, of glorified selfishness. In this era of tax revolts, “tea parties,” gated communities, health, food, and fitness fixations, and jealous, generational, and individual protectiveness, perhaps few biblical stories may seem more culturally challenging than these accounts of long ago and far away widows – the challenge to focus on something other than oneself and on one’s individual needs, not to let oneself and one’s own all-important private world get in the way of our obligations to others and our connection with the larger human community. Ours is a society in which reality is increasingly subjective, in which the Individual has become the focus 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 alleged that prosperity and religion do not coexist well together. The sad state of religion in much of the developed world today is sometimes cited to confirm that claim. Whatever our exact circumstances, we have all been culturally conditioned by affluence. We are forever being tempted to privilege what is individual and private over what is common and shared. Jesus’ words are a challenge to us all to rediscover what generosity actually means, and in the process to rediscover the experience of being connected with one another in a larger community, to rediscover what commitment to one another and such a community actually requires of us - but also what it enables us in turn to become, not just now but forever.
Homily for the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, November 8, 2015