The thing is, we never see the widow.
There are widows in both the first reading and today’s Gospel and neither story describes the widow. We don’t know what she’s wearing, if she’s tall or short, nothing at all about how she looked or anything. That’s pretty typical of most Scripture passages; we don’t know much of that about many of the characters we come across in the readings. But somehow, in these readings, especially in the Gospel, the lack of notice seems a bit more culpable than typical Scripture glossing-over of details.
We just never see the widow.
In the Gospel story, if Jesus didn’t see the widow, well, nobody would have. They would certainly have noticed the rich people who put in large sums. The collection boxes were designed that way. As they dropped in their many large coins, the donation would have made quite a loud clanking as they worked their way to the bottom of the box. Many times, people would time their deposit so that they could get the most attention possible. But a poor widow dropping in two small coins would never have gotten anyone’s attention. Except that Jesus saw her.
Jesus saw the widow and noticed her meager contribution. But in seeing the widow, Jesus knew all about her. He saw the lack of status that she had as a widow. Women in that society had no status at all unless they had a male figure to take care of them. A father, brother or husband meant that a woman would be taken care of and protected. But a widow would have given up her father and male family members to get married. And, at the death of her husband, she would have lost that protection also. Widows in that society were in a very bad way.
Jesus also saw the widow’s contribution. It was a very small contribution, equivalent to about one sixty-fourth of a denarius. A denarius was a day’s wage. A contribution that small was so insignificant that it would hardly have been noticed among the large contributions made by the rich people. But Jesus knew that the two small coins were perhaps all the poor widow had in the world. Any status or protection she would have as a widow would have come through the money she had. In giving the two small coins, she was probably giving everything she had. Jesus knew that for her, giving those two small coins was a way of giving up any control she had, and now the only person she could rely on is God. We never hear what happens to her, but her act of faith does not go unnoticed.
The situation is much the same in today’s first reading. Elijah the prophet is fleeing from his enemy, King Ahab. Ahab wanted to take Elijah’s life, and he is on the run. Here we see the powerful prophet completely at the mercy of those who seek him, and he has no one to whom to turn. Except for a poor widow. In Elijah’s day, even a widow was expected to show hospitality to a guest, even at the cost of all she may have. That was the custom. So Elijah asks for a drink and receives one. Then he asks for a cake, and the widow protests that the little bit of flour and oil was all she had for herself and her son, and she was planning on the two of them dying after having consumed it that day. But, ever attentive to the demands of hospitality, she does indeed make him the cake. And the prophet’s promise that the flour would not run out nor the flask of oil run dry is beautifully fulfilled for a year. Unlike the widow in the Gospel, we see that this widow is taken care of by God, and perhaps we can assume that God took care of the Gospel widow as well.
Because God does see the widow.
God sees the widow for the creation that she is. God knows her plight and hears her cry. Through the ministry and generosity of widows, God cares for prophets on the run and provides for the upkeep of a Temple. Through that same generosity, God provides a rich example not just of generous giving – although that’s there too – but of giving up control in order to experience the life, and care, and salvation that comes from God. The widow gives up what she has and she is cared for. When she is oppressed by unscrupulous Scribes who take her house for their own benefit, her cries are heard. God sees the widow.
And if God sees the widow, then we had better see her too.
But, we don’t. We miss the widow in our midst time and time again.
There are many people represented by the widow in these stories. The Psalmist gives us a look at all those who went unnoticed in his time. He sings that God secures justice for the oppressed, feeds the hungry, sets captives free, gives sight to the blind, raises up those bowed down, loves the just, protects strangers, and sustains the fatherless and the widow. God sees all of these people.
The widows in our time are all those who society forgets. The single mother. The homeless man. The forgotten elderly in nursing homes. The children of the poor. The unborn who are aborted every day. The terminally ill. The immigrant woman who comes in to clean the office when you’re headed home for the day. The mentally ill. Those on death row. Members of our armed forces fighting in far-away lands.
We never see any of these people. But God does.
Once again, we are coming to the end of our liturgical year. And so we must continue the kind of liturgical soul-searching that I’ve encouraged us to engage in these last few weeks. We need to take a look back at our lives this year and identify those we may not have seen the way God does. Maybe they are some of the strangers that I mentioned already. But maybe there are people closer to us that we have not noticed. Members of our family, neighbors, co-workers. Who are the people we have not noticed because we have been so wrapped up in ourselves? Who are the people we have forgotten because we are afraid that stopping to help them will leave us poorer? Who are those we have neglected because of selfishness or lack of concern? Who are the ones we have not seen?
What about our relationship with God? Has it reflected the action of the widows in today’s Liturgy of the Word which showed that letting go of everything we have gives us the opportunity to let God care for us and give us what we truly need? Or has our selfishness kept us bound up and attached to the things in our lives and in our world which have no permanence? Have we given up the Kingdom of God only to purchase a way of life that does not lead us to our Creator? Have we desperately held on to status, wealth and passing pleasures or have we let go and experienced the freedom that gives us the true security of God’s love and care for us?
There is a paradox in today’s readings, brothers and sisters. We are definitely called to start seeing the widows and all those who are forgotten among us. We are certainly called to care for them, because we are the instruments God uses to take care of those who need his protection. But, we are also called to be more like the widow. We are called to give from our need and not from our abundance. We are called to let go of everything we think we have in order to catch hold of the One who longs to gather us back to himself. The only real freedom we will ever have is when we give up every security we think we have in order to gain the care of our God who is always faithful.
Our hope has to be that our participation in the Eucharist this year has led us to a place where we are close enough to our God that we would see the widow. May we see the widow, and all the forgotten among us, and respond to their needs. May we see the widow’s example and give out of our comfort level in order that God, who is never outdone in generosity, can work his grace in our lives. May we see the widow because God does, and may we know the grace that was poured out on the widow in Elijah’s story, whose flour jar did not go empty and whose flask of oil did not run dry.