All She Had to Live On
The widow in today’s gospel—who puts her last two coins into the Temple treasury—often leaves people with one feeling: Whatever we’re giving, it’s probably not enough.
Whether we’re giving some of our personal surplus, or something really substantial, or something really sacrificial to our families, friends, community, church, or favorite cause, there’s always this widow who out-gives us. As Jesus says, she has given “all she has to live on.”
So, there’s that weekly dose of inferiority, guilt, and shame that we all come to church for—right? The reminder that whatever we’re doing for God or for our neighbors, it’s not enough? That we could do better? That we could give more?
Actually, I think that message might not be what Jesus wants to tell us, but what a scribe in long robes would want us to hear. That whatever we’re giving, we could give more. The scribes would sure like to re-direct the spotlight of today’s gospel from their own exploitation of others to the generosity of this widow. But the point of the story is not how faithful and generous this widow is in giving; the point of the story is how wrong the scribes are for accepting a gift that is not sustainable or life-giving.
Today’s gospel begins with Jesus warning people about the scribes who wear long robes, who love getting respect in public places, who get the best seats in the house, whose long-winded prayers make them seem holy, and who, as the gospel says, “devour widows’ houses.” That is, they earn the trust of widows by crafting their public image in ways that make them seem . . . trustworthy. Having insinuated themselves to widows, these scribes function kind of like lawyers and, as payment, they receive a share of the widows’ estates. In other words, these scribes grow their wealth at the expense of economically vulnerable people.
After warning people in the Temple about this subset of scribes, Jesus turns our eyes to the treasury across the Temple courtyard. There we see many rich people depositing large sums of money. But then, we see a “poor widow,” who puts in two of the smallest coins in circulation. And Jesus tells his disciples, “this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."
In light of Jesus’ warning about the scribes, this is not a good thing. The poor widow’s gift illustrates his point: gifts to the Temple treasury prop up the power and respectability of a few scribes and deprive widows of what they need in order to live. Jesus doesn’t judge the wealthy who give out of their abundance. And he doesn’t judge the widow herself. Jesus does declare judgment on the scribes, though, saying, “They will receive the greater condemnation.” Why? Because the people in their care are using their money in ways that don’t give them life.
In today’s Scriptures, though, we meet another widow who is at the end of her resources, but who learns to give in life-giving ways. The widow in Zarephath, in today’s first reading, has “only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug”–just enough ingredients to mix into dough and bake into cake for one last meal with her son.
But Elijah invites even this widow, who has next to nothing, into an experience of giving that sustains her. Elijah starts by asking the widow for a little something: “a little water in a vessel.” Then, he asks her for something more: “a morsel of bread.” These are small amounts—although in this period of drought and famine, they’re still the difference between life and death.
When the widow protests that she doesn’t have any bread and tells Elijah her plans to make one more cake before she starves, Elijah doesn’t try to change her mind or her whole perspective on abundance and scarcity. Rather, he just gives her one small step to take before she gives up. He says, “go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake.”
These are words worth remembering, straight from the mouth of a prophet: “go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake.” Is there something small we can do, something small we can give, right before we feel like giving up?
Elijah asks for a little water, a morsel of bread, a little cake. And, when the widow offers what she has, she finds herself sustained. It turns out to be enough—and to be even more than she thought she had. As the Scripture tells us, she finds enough in her jar of meal and her jug of oil not to last forever, but at least to tide her and her family over until the rain comes to end the drought and famine.
The widow of Zarephath and the poor widow in today’s gospel both seem to give all that they have. But, at the prophet’s invitation, the widow of Zarephath can give in a way that gives life to herself, to her family, and to a stranger who needs her hospitality. She gives in a way that is faithful, that is risky. And although she seems to be at the end of her resources, she somehow gives like the many wealthy people in today’s gospel. Like the wealthy, she gives from an abundance that she didn’t even know she had. And the source of her giving is the God of today’s Psalm, who “cares for the stranger” and “sustains the orphan and widow.”
This is how God invites us to give: in a way that serves strangers, that celebrates a God who sustains us, that may look like a little but feel like a lot, that nourishes those we love, and that surprises us with abundance.
A little water, a morsel of bread, a little cake. These aren’t trivial offerings; they’re substantial—they come from what we have to live on. But they’re sustainable, because they come from a jar that’s never empty, from a jug that never runs out, until the God who never fails showers us with rainfall.