In what way can a widow be blessed? In today’s passages, two widows are shown to exemplify the first of the Beatitudes. How can that be?
And what can a widowed heart teach me about my day-to-day Christian life?
Gifts to the Temple
In today’s Gospel reading, Mk 12:38-44, we pick up where we left off last week. Jesus is teaching in the Temple area. He has just worked his way through a series of gotcha questions by a string of Pharisees, Herodians, Sadducees and Scribes. They were trying to trip him up, but he simply used their questions as opportunities to clarify difficult and obscure teachings. On things like taxes. The Resurrection. The greatest commandment. And whether the Messiah can rightfully be understood to be David’s son.
After four waves, their line of attack dies down. No one else is forthcoming; no more barbs and no more traps. Jesus pauses. At this point, he is standing in the Temple area. The text allows us to assume that the religious leaders have withdrawn from him for now, plotting their next step.
Jesus, free to speak his mind, tells those who are listening to beware of a religiosity which leads to fanfare, honors and material abundance. Here he is speaking of the scribes, who have the custom of wearing long robes and receiving formal greetings in the marketplaces, seats of honor in the synagogues. Invitations to sumptuous banquets, ample gifts from the faithful.
Theirs was a spirituality, Jesus says, of honors and lengthy prayers. But lengthy prayers do not necessarily a disciple make.
This would have been something of a shock for the people to hear. Jesus is describing people at the top of the spiritual food chain, the top of the religious hierarchy. But he is unveiling a different way of seeing them, God’s way of seeing them. God sees differently than we do.
Jesus uses the natural unfolding of events at the Temple to illustrate his point.
He sits down, opposite the baskets placed at the Temple to receive the gifts of the faithful. These held the financial gifts to support the Temple activities. Jesus observes. His disciples observe with him.
There were a number of wealthy people coming to pay their respects and fulfill their religious duties. Many deposited large sums of money in the baskets.
A Poor Widow But Rich in What Matters
One poor woman approached. She was a widow.
Let’s take in the words used to describe her. She was a χήρα πτωχὴ, or kayra ptokay. A poor widow. The word – πτωχός – is a word rich with meaning in Scripture. It can denote poverty at multiple levels. It can mean that one is destitute of wealth, influence, position and honor; that one is reduced to begging or asking alms; helpless to accomplish one’s ends; needy; poor in spirit; poor in learning or culture. It denotes, in others words, poverty in a radical human sense.
This is the kind of poverty most of us would shun. But yet Jesus calls it blessed in his eyes. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he says in Mt 5:3.
πτωχοὶ τῷ πνεύματι, the ptokoi in pneumati. The poor in spirit.
We might miss this, but in this poor widow, we are seeing a real-life version of this first Beatitude. A heart poor in spirit – and poor in fact – upon whom Jesus looks and loves. He casts his gaze upon this widow and bids his disciples behold what is wondrous and beloved about her.
To ensure that they get the point, he calls his disciples to himself. This is a move he often makes when he wants to deliver a harder saying. Even friendly crowds can’t always receive the harder things Jesus says so he reserves these for his close disciples alone.
So it is here. We have moved from a large crowd, including religious leaders, to a smaller crowd of those who are friendly to Jesus, and now to just a little pocket of his close disciples. His disciples were used to hearing Jesus say challenging things. So they are willing to listen to the hard stuff, to give him the benefit of the doubt. They listen because they have already learned that his wisdom transcends normal wisdom; it defies normal human categories.
We might ask ourselves here. How do I listen to Jesus? When he says something challenging, do I take it in and allow myself to be challenged? Or do I move on to the next page or to another conversation?
Pennies Worth More Than Gold
In any event, Jesus turns to his disciples. Remarking on the two coins the widow has given, He says to them:
“Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the others.”
This must have sounded like nonsense. Two small coins; dropped by a poor widow; clinking quietly as they fell; worth just a few cents – these were worth more than the large sums of money confidently dropped into the baskets by the wealthy?
The others contributed from their surplus wealth. From the scraps of their abundant tables. They gave amounts they would not miss. The equivalent of giving to a homeless person the leftovers from your restaurant dinner.
But this widow, Jesus says, out of her poverty, gave all that she had, all her livelihood.
This might seem a form of madness. One of those hyperboles we sometimes identify in Jesus’ teaching. Did she really do that? Is that a smart thing to do? Does Jesus really mean to praise her?
Let’s dig a little deeper.
Let me quote and translate the key phrase in the Greek.
αὕτη δὲ ἐκ τῆς ὑστερήσεως αὐτῆς πάντα ὅσα εἶχεν ἔβαλεν, ὅλον τὸν βίον αὐτῆς.
Translated literally: But she, out of her poverty, as much as all she had she gave, all her livelihood.
In other words, all she had to live on. One can even translate the word “bios” here not just as livelihood but as life itself.
And so we have a picture of a poor widow who gives her very self, all she has, all her life, all her livelihood, in support of that place on earth where she understood the glory of God to dwell.
All My Heart. All My Soul. All My Mind. All My Strength.
Why do I dwell on this? Because we have a picture here of the word we just contemplated last week. Last week, just a few verses earlier in Mark Chapter 12, Jesus said to the people: “Hear Israel, you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all our soul, with all your mind, and with all our strength.” Mk. 12:30.
Now Jesus shows his disciples a portrait of such a soul. So that they can see such love in act.
This poor widow lives with spiritual abandon, in total generosity and poverty of spirit toward God. This is sanctity hidden beneath the guise of a poor woman. Her gift is nearly meaningless in the eyes of men, but, in the eyes of Jesus, it is a thing of wonder. He sees her. He praises her.
She is the one worthy of the long robes. She is the one worthy of being greeted with honor in the Temple.
Jesus is giving his disciples a window into the way God sees. He is saying God sees the heart. God sees giving not in terms of dollars and cents but in terms of generosity of heart. Not quantity of giving but the degree to which the gift is generous, to which it comes from the heart, from a heart that is not afraid to be poor and vulnerable before God and others.
I want to unpack this point with a story, so we can better understand.
Consider the widow that welcomed Elijah in 1 Kgs 17:10-16. In this story, Elijah is sent to test and make manifest the beautiful faith of a pagan widow in Zarephath – who in turn stands in a way for all of us and the way that children of God can walk with Him.
It’s a time of draught across the land. Famine has set in and everyone is feeling the pinch, both in Israel and in pagan lands. Zaraphath was in pagan territory.
The draught was like a desert experience for all the people. A time of deprivation in which the human psyche felt hunger but the hand of God could still be discerned.
Elijah the prophet discerns it and follows it. God sends him into the desert and says he will sustain his needs with water from a brook and food delivered by ravens. Elijah goes. The word of God proves true. God provides for him. In this way, Elijah gives us an image of a man living in poverty of spirit, in dependance on the Providence of God.
A Widow’s Heart
Next God sends Elijah to a widow’s home in the pagan town of Zarephath. He says he will sustain Elijah here as well, at the hands of this poor widow. Elijah obeys. He goes. He encounters the woman and calls her into a path of faith.
The whole story might seem puzzling. But it is really just an enactment of the path of dependance upon God. That is the lens we must see it under.
As it relates to our widow in Mark 12, here’s the point I want to make. The widow in Elijah’s story is broken by draught and famine like so many people around her. She had only one meal left in her home. One meal left standing between her and penury. One meal was all her livelihood.
Then she meets Elijah, the man sent by God. He asks, in effect, if she would share with him from this, her last meal. Elijah promises, he utters a word of God. If she is willing to take this step of faith: “The jar of flour shall not go empty, nor the jug of oil run dry, until the day when the LORD sends rain upon the earth.” I Kgs 17:14.
It seems a non-sensical request. We might think it selfish on Elijah’s part. But Elijah is a prophet, sent to dramatize a truth. That in time of draught, as in time of abundance, the poor in spirit who wait upon the Lord will know God’s fatherly providence.
This is what it means when Jesus says that the poor in spirit are blessed. They are blessed because the poor in spirit who live in faith will know the fatherly providence of God.
And so it is with the widow in Zarephath. She, out of her poverty, gives of her very last meal to the man sent by the Spirit of God. In the dark night of her poverty, of her unknowing, of her vulnerability, she discovers the providential hand of God, providing for her needs. Each day until the draught ends and fruitfulness returns to the land.
Blessed Are The Poor In Spirit
I’d like to say a few quick things to wrap up.
It seems to me that this daily bread that God provides the widow and her family in 1 Kings is a renewal of the miracle of the manna in the desert. In the desert, God provided sustenance to his people each day on their journey (Cf. Exodus 16) and that’s what he does for this widow. It also seems to me that this bread evokes the bread of life that Jesus causes to miraculously appear, feeding the crowds that have come to him and were trusting in him. This bread that we also eat down through the ages, in a miraculous, constantly renewed exchange that feeds the hungry heart that wishes to grow in the life of the Spirit.
For the bread of the Eucharist is that bread which gives life in Christ to those who hunger for it, to those who yearn for it out of a poor heart that stands, before God, full of faith.
I return to the first Beatitude: Blessed are the poor in Spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of God.
Why is this true? Why is it blessed to be poor? Because before God, rich though we may be, we are existentially and spiritually poor. Poor because we stand deeply in need of the graces to live a full life in the Spirit. Poor because, as human beings, we stand as beggars of the divine nature God wishes to impart to us.
Yet when we touch our deep poverty and remain full of expectant faith we will discover, in a unique way, the presence, the providence and the caring fatherhood of God.
This is the beatitude of the widowed heart. A heart marked by a certain deep poverty because that which she loves with her highest love is no longer fully present on earth. There is a hole in the heart, an absence, an emptiness, a yearning that thirsts for a love greater than can be found on earth.
A heart that so loves another that nothing can fill the space except the beloved. Such a widowed heart is an image of the poor in spirit who loves God above all things. Nothing can fill that love but God alone. And to such a heart the Father makes Himself known in a special way.
Father, you delight in filling the poor with good things, with the gifts of the Spirit. But I tend to delight in my riches, in my strengths, in my autonomy and my accomplishments. Teach me the joy and the beatitude of a widow’s heart. Teach me to love you, with all my heart, with all my soul, with all my mind and with all my strength. To know the joy of a heart where the highest love is reserved for you alone. A heart to whom you reveal that love and that Providence that is greater than all things.