The United States will celebrate Thanksgiving next week, and in this context I am considering last Sunday’s readings about two poor widows who gave all they had to help further God’s mission.
In the first reading, the widow of Zarephath was expecting to die of starvation along with her son when the prophet Elijah appeared, asking for a drink of water and a piece of bread. Although he is not only a stranger but also of a different faith, she took the last of her food and gave it to him.
The Bible fails to tell us why she does this. Was she adhering to the hospitality rules of her culture? Did she believe the word of the Lord spoken by Elijah, that her jars of flour and oil would not run out?
Similar questions arise from the Gospel reading, in which Jesus watches people put money into the temple treasury. “Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow also came and put in two small coins worth a few cents,” the Gospel of Mark tells us, and Jesus comments that “she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had.”
Here we have even less idea of the widow’s motivation: Surely she knew her few cents wouldn’t mean much to the priests, especially when the largesse of the rich was filling the treasury. For the widow, putting in those two coins probably meant she went hungry that day, so why did she part with her money? Out of duty to God? Because she had faith that God could somehow make use of the gift?
In both Bible stories the widows give from their need, not their want. I am reminded of a story I heard years ago, from a humanitarian worker in a poverty-stricken country who took food to a starving woman and her children. The woman invited the worker to stay for a meal, but soon the worker realized the hostess had left the home. When the woman returned, she explained that she had taken some of the food to a neighbor family who was also starving.
Today’s world, too, has starving widows and children. We also have desperate foreigners fleeing persecution (let’s not forget that Elijah was on the run; Queen Jezebel threatened his life because he ordered the deaths of the prophets of her god, Baal.)
In the midst of these dire circumstances faced by many in our country and our world, my own most pressing issue for Thursday’s holiday is whether to cook a whole turkey or settle for Cornish game hens. That all the fixings will be on the table is a given.
I started out today with the news that I will need to put even more money into repairing my car, and knowing that sometime very soon my uncle, who is terminally ill, will die – the third death in my family this year, which also brought the news that an aunt probably has Alzheimer’s disease. Despite these woes, I can look forward to the holiday season with equanimity because I have a job that I enjoy that allows me to put food on the table and a roof over my head. Except for the elderly members who are coming to the end of their natural days, my family is healthy. They, too, have jobs and food and housing. We live in a country where we are free to worship the god of our choice, or to not acknowledge the divine, if we so choose. My friends also have challenges, but like me they are able to contribute more than a mere widow’s mite to benefit those in need.
If I were at the point where I had only enough for one meal for myself and my child I do not know whether I would heed a holy man’s request; looking at the damage to my bank balance that will be done by the required car repairs and replacing the water heater (which is on its last legs), I am tempted to not put even two small coins into the collection basket on Sunday. And yet on Thursday, when I bow my head to give thanks over a laden table, I will be forced to acknowledge that God is good and has blessed me.
“Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more,” St. Luke warns. Many times I feel more like the poor widow than the rich, but when I stop yearningly for what I lack and instead note my blessings with gratitude I see that in fact I have been given not only much but more. It is out of this abundance that I will share, not only because it pleases God but because it gratifies me to know that the little that I am able to give can ease the burden of the hungry, the homeless and the oppressed.
Marie Mischel is editor of the Intermountain Catholic.