Poor widows and God’s abundance

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus tells the story of the poor widow who put in two small coins. Jesus praises this woman and sets her in opposition to the scribes who enjoy wearing fancy clothing, sitting in seats of honor, and who ‘devour the houses of widows.’ In Hebrew scripture, for example in Deuteronomy and Amos, the widow is the paradigmatic example of the poor and vulnerable person. A widow in ancient Israel might be poor after her husband’s death if there was no one to provide for her income. Jesus stands in continuity with the tradition of the Deuteronomic code which states that God requires that we give to the widow and the orphan, or the visiting stranger, with an open hand. If we have food and clothing to share, and someone else is in need, we are to share it.

Jesus’ story, though, goes a step further than telling the powerful to care for the vulnerable—although he clearly also has this in mind when he condemns the scribes for “devouring” the houses of widows. Rather, he emphasizes a kind of power that the widow has, even in her powerlessness. It is a mistake to look down on those who are poor or otherwise vulnerable and to assume that they lack power and we possess it, or that they are to be pitied while we praise ourselves for the goods that we possess or the charity that we do. Jesus’ emphasis is quite the opposite: he praises the widow for the power of her generosity, exhibited through her sacrificial gift. The scribes appear to have the power and status, but in the eyes of God it is the poor widow who has the true power, a power to love.

In a way, though, even this kind of generosity is not entirely her own. The first story about a different widow makes this point clear: this widow who provides for Elijah out of her meager leftovers of flour and oil finds that these ingredients are miraculously restored. God never fails to provide for her; the more she gives away, the more she has. In this story, the widow has to make a choice: whether to hold onto what she has until she herself can get more, or to depend entirely upon God to provide. She chooses to trust in God’s generosity to provide where her own means might fail. And God gives, abundantly.

These stories together suggest that the truth is that we are all powerless as human beings, in the sense that nothing that we have to offer to others is something that we ourselves created. Everything we possess, and everything that we are, originally comes from God. The scribes’ mistake—and ours, if we make it, too—is to think that praise and honor are due to us for our own achievements, when instead our attitude ought to be humble gratitude to God for whatever gifts God has given. And then, we are asked to share those gifts with others, humbly, without fanfare.

Yesterday’s first reading also resonated with me along similar lines. St Paul expresses  joy that the Philippians have “revived their concern” for him. Paul finds new life in his community of friends, after a time of absence. His words are tender toward his friends and he is glad for this revitalization of relationship, as he has been detained by authorities in Rome. He adds, though, that he has found the secret to remaining at peace, which is to rely on God both in times of need and times of plenty. God is always there to provide Paul with strength and with joy. God is the source of his abundance. So in a way, he has no “need” of the gift, in a deeper and more existential sense. In another way, though, Paul’s freedom to find his sustenance in God is precisely what allows him to experience joy in his friends. Paul’s being grounded in God creates a kind of space for giving and receiving love to enter in.

Paul understands that we human beings are always a gift to one another. As creaturely human beings, we “need” God, and God provides. Then our relationships become a place where generosity, hospitality, kindness and love can be practiced. Paul describes this gift of the Philippians as having left behind a “fragrant aroma” that lingers. It’s a beautiful image—the aroma of a love that lingers even after the moment of gift is gone. This Sunday, it is a lovely image on which to reflect: where are the moments past where God’s gifts of love have touched us deeply, and still linger? Where are we ourselves called to be strengthened in our own lives from this lingering scent of the Lord?