The liturgy this week shows us two poor but generous widows. Widows of that time had no inheritance rights, and without a man to support them were often needy, and throughout the Bible there are frequent condemnations of those who do not help, and frequent urging people to care for them and for orphaned children, as well.
1 Kings 17:10-16
This selection comes from the stories of Elijah which start in Kings 17:1. He was one of the first prophets, living in the difficult times when the united kingdom of David and Solomon was divided in two: the northern part, which was then called Israel, and the southern part called Judah. There was strife between them, and they were badly affected by foreign wars. It was an unsettled time when many were tempted to give up the Law with its commandment to remain faithful to their one God and to adopt cults of pagan gods. The Elijah cycle is a lively account, and his personality comes through as well as his teaching.
The background to our reading is that Elijah, speaking prophetically, had called a drought because Ahab, the king of Israel, had been influenced by his foreign born wife to the worship of the pagan god Baal. Elijah’s demonstration of the power to control rainfall was a direct challenge to Baal as the storm god. While the drought was on, Elijah was told by God to go to Zarephath, a town of Sidon, in a land north of Israel, and out of the range of the Israelite king but a place where Baal was worshipped. God tells him to stay there for some time. ‘I have ordered a widow there to give you food.’
Curiously when Elijah finds the widow, she seems unaware of God’s ‘order’ to her. But she listens to Elijah and obeys him. She and her son will survive the drought as will the prophet. Whether or not she worshipped Baal before, now through the miracles in her life, she sees that the true God of Elijah speaks through him. [See 1 Kings 17:24]
Psalm 145 or 146:7-10
Our psalm verses today pick up the theme of widow and orphan, with trust in God’s care for them and all who are oppressed. It comes from a hymn of praise recited by Jews as morning prayer.
In the New Testament there are various attempts to find ways of understanding Jesus and his saving death, although this is a mystery beyond full knowledge in this life. The writers use images drawn from common life, and the variety of images is helpful in giving differing insights. Often the comparisons were taken from the Old Testament, which was a background well known to the first readers and hearers. The liturgy continues with the author of Hebrews who is using the model of the Jewish High Priest to explain how ‘much more so’ Jesus is our High Priest. Today the focus turns to the temple sanctuary, seeing the earthly temple in Jerusalem as a ‘copy’ of the ‘ideal’ temple which is heaven where Jesus is in God’s presence.
The second contrast is that while the Jewish High Priest had to offer a sacrifice every year, Christ’s sacrifice was once for all, and never has to be repeated. (You can sense the author’s horror that Jesus otherwise would have to continue to suffer, year by year.) Jesus came the first time to ‘take the sins of all’ in his willing sacrifice of his own blood. When he comes again, it will be the completion of this salvation for all who are ‘eagerly waiting for him.’ The author calls Jesus’ second appearance the ‘end of the age’ for all will be fulfilled in him and no further revelation is needed.
This selection takes place on the last public day of Jesus in Jerusalem before his arrest. Jesus has been teaching in the temple, and the audience seems to have included others as well as those who were his disciples. The first warning may have been addressed to everyone listening, or meant especially for the disciples. ‘Beware’ here has the emphasis ‘be careful of behaving as they do’. The scribes, whose name comes from their literacy in a culture where many people could not read or write, would offer their services for important documents when needed, but also were considered experts in the Law. In Mark they along with the Pharisees are shown as mostly in opposition to Jesus and his teaching. The regard with which they were treated by the people had at times led them to seek these honours, to ‘show off’ and to take advantage of those who give them payment or donations. It was not so much that the length of their prayers that is a problem, but praying publicly and ostentatiously to impress others, rather than to reach God. Jesus also blamed them for taking advantage of widows, and that leads into the next section.
There were several metal donations chests in the temple and the noise of dropping coins in them would make it apparent who was giving more. Jesus here does not accuse the wealthy of contributing in order to be admired, although large gifts would seem impressive to others. (The same is true today when public recognition is given to big donors while those who sacrifice to make small donations receive little attention.) Jesus calls his disciples to notice the widow and points out how much her gift really means: it is not those who give out of their surplus that impresses God, but those whose giving requires a real sacrifice. Giving is measured not by amounts but by how deeply it digs.
Mark does not indicate how Jesus knew this woman’s back-story, his attention is all on what she is doing. It is startling to think of her putting her whole living into the treasury. It would mean that she had such utter trust in God’s care that she was willing to give everything she had today, waiting on God for what tomorrow will bring her. Jesus did not here tell his disciples to follow her generosity but leaves before them – and us – God’s view of who really deserves the most honour.