32 Sunday 2009 B
Jesus chose unlikely role models for his disciples to emulate. He held up people who were thought to be ritually unclean or even sinful because of a physical malady or their ethnicity (the Gerasine demoniac, the woman with a hemorrhage, the Syrophoenician woman, the boy with a demon, blind Bartimaeus). Jesus praised them as exemplars of faith whose trust and reliance on God he wished to cultivate in his followers.
The unlikely role models in today’s liturgy are two widows whose courage in the face of difficulty, challenges our own behavior as Jesus’ disciples. In contemporary society, a widow is a woman whose husband has died and who has not remarried. As her husband’s equal partner, she generally inherits his estate, and although her days may be lonely, she is not defenseless, nor has she lost any rights or status in the absence of her spouse.
A Jewish widow in Jesus’ day was far less fortunate. When her husband died, the widow could return to her family if her dowry could be paid to her husband’s heirs. She had no rights or status of her own. She was set adrift.
Neither the widow who offered hospitality to Elijah nor the widow who gave all she had to the temple treasury therefore could be described as prudent. A prudent person would reason that “charity begins at home.” The first widow could have turned Elijah away in order to take care of herself and her son. Similarly, if the woman in the Gospel had been practical and prudent, she could have kept her coins, or at most, given only one of them to the temple treasury. In their actions, both widows revealed priorities that had little to do with prudence or practicality.
God sent Elijah to a foreign land to take care of a starving widow but the actual story seems much different. Elijah does not help feed the Zarephath widow and her child at all. Instead he demands food from her! She has “only a handful of flour” in her jar, she says, and “a little oil” in her jug. She sees nothing but death before them. In effect, Elijah wanted their last meal for himself. This story is not only about the faith of the widow but the faith of Elijah. He could never have challenged her to be so generous if he did not believe that God would care for her. As she went, Elijah shouted after her, “The God of Israel says, ‘The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.’” She bakes the tiny bit of bread, in front of longing eyes of her son, and takes all of it, every bit of it, to Elijah.
Does this story make sense? No. Why is it in God’s word? Where is the truth? This widow knew God so well that she trusted in his goodness even in the face of impending death. Her last act would be one of charity. This is the real meaning of faith, to release your own control of things.
The message is clear: when everyone gives, everyone receives. It is not money, or property, or university degrees, or professional status, or health that ultimately really matter. These can all disappear without warning. What really matters is that people take care of each other.
Hospitality, as exercised in the ancient world, placed the care of the guest above one’s own needs and desires. “Long before expressways and motels were commonplace, a rainstorm stranded a young couple on a country road. They walked to a near-by farmhouse, where an elderly couple invited them in and gave them a room for the night. The next morning the young couple rose early and prepared to leave quietly without disturbing the elderly couple. When they reached the living room they found the couple asleep on chairs. Their hosts had given them their only bedroom.”
A single encounter between his father and a neighbour during the Spanish Civil War was to have a profound effect on Julio Olalla’s appreciation for life. His father was absolutely devastated by hunger. He had a piece of bread and that was all he had and he had been keeping it for a long time.
A woman across the street came to him and said, “My father is dying of starvation. Do you have anything, anything that I can give him.” Julio describes how his father told him that he was in such anguish. He got the bread and gave it to her.
Years later Father and Son traveled to that same town in Northern Spain. We arrived to the place where that event took place. This is the house where that took place about the bread. While we were talking, a woman across the street came to my father and said, “Are you Gregory?” My father said “Yes” “Do you remember the bread you gave me?” My father was completely taken. I remember his jaw falling in disbelief and he hugged the woman and they hugged each other. That was a time I understood what gratitude was all about.
I remember watching that. They were crying. They didn’t talk. They couldn’t. Something, in that moment, set in me, in a way that I carry it today in everything I do.” Julio says, “Gratitude is so missing in the world today. Without gratitude, nothing is enough!”
Do we not know both women well? They have no names.They are among us and they are us. Have we not encountered them often? Does not their goodness bring a catch to our throat?
Those who are “poor in spirit” are those who recognize their dependence on God, not on material possessions. I have met poor in Kenyawho give their only chicken. I have met a few people who have wealth and yet are very poor in spirit because their stuff really means nothing to them, all that matters is to be in right relationships. I have been blessed in my life to know a family who themselves lived in a poor farm house, yet they shared in a tremendously generous way to assist us in working with the people’s contribution and CIDA to build a Water Project that serves over three thousand family farms. I approached them after someone told me they were very interested in assisting water projects for the Third World. I explained that we needed to raise $200,000 from donors to access another $400,000 from CIDA. Without a lot of discussion among themselves, I hear, “I think we can do that.” A miracle to find people with hearts that big. Woe to those who are rich, filled, content but refuse to take care of their deprived brothers and sisters. Wealth becomes a curse when it is not shared with those in need.
In their daring, in their faith, in their generosity and utter trust in God, these disciples teach that their base of security is not to be found in a stocked pantry or a hefty bank account but in God.
Let us pray for a generosity that holds nothing back, a generosity that never ceases to be in service to others, a generosity that seeks no reward.
“A Prayer for Generosity” - St. Ignatius of Loyola
"Dear Lord, teach me to be generous. Teach me to serve you as you deserve.
To give and not to count the cost. To fight and not to heed the wounds. To toil and not to seek for rest
To labor and not to seek reward save that of knowing that I do your will, O God.”