It’s finally here. School is out for the summer, most graduations have taken place, and soon many of us will be off on our summer vacation adventures. In the life of the Church the major liturgical seasons are now behind us and we can now settle in for the long season of ordinary time. It’s a good time to reflect on what is most important and to bear in mind who we are to be as Christians in the ordinary times of our lives.
Today’s readings contrast the events in the lives of two widows separated many long centuries. From the time of Elijah the prophet to the time of Jesus eight centuries had passed. We hear in the Old Testament reading from the Book of Kings of Elijah raising the child of the widow of Zaraphath and then in Luke’s gospel we hear of Jesus raising up the child of a widow of the city of Nain, which is the site of the modern-day Arab village of Nein near the traditional site of the mountain of the transfiguration, Mt. Tabor.
What might we gather from the two stories could range anywhere from trusting in God’s miraculous abilities to prefiguring the Resurrection of God’s son, and interestingly also Mary’s son given that Mary has been traditionally believed to have been widowed since we hear nothing of Joseph in Jesus’ adult life. We might also see the gospel story as an affirmation of the ministry of Jesus when we compare the proclamation of the widow of Nain, “A great prophet has arisen in our midst,” with the proclamation of the widow of Zaraphath concerning Elijah, “Now indeed I know that you are a man of God. The word of the Lord comes truly from your mouth.” Certainly no one would fault you if what you took from these stories is that God is to be trusted in the direst of all situations, so undoubtedly God may be trusted with the ordinary events of our lives. However, I think there is something more, but it may take a little work getting to it.
You may or may not recall, but eight months have passed—thankfully not eight centuries—since we also heard in last liturgical cycle of the widow of Zaraphath compared to another widow in Jesus’ time who in giving only two coins, which was all she had, gave more than all those who had given great offerings that amounted to a small portion of their wealth. In that comparison it was Elijah who asked the widow to bake him a meal of bread from the tiny amount of flour that was the last food she had as her son lay dying. In both of those stories the widows gave their all. They gave everything in an act of faith to those who they perceived as being the messengers of God.
To truly understand what is going on here we need to get at what it was like to be a widow in the ancient world, both in the time of Elijah and in the time of Jesus. In those times being a widow had significant differences from being a widow in modern times aside from the experience of grief in having lost one’s spouse by death. Unless there was some wealth left behind, which typically may have have been left to the children and administered by a member of the community, and unless there was family present to share the burden, being a woman left alone, especially one left with children, was a dire predicament. In those days there were no social plans to offer assistance. There was no welfare state to make sure that widows did not live in destitution. There were none of the structures present that we value today. True there were biblical admonitions about widows, but there were no plans or programs. A woman might remarry, but there was strong superstition about marrying widows.
The fact is that poverty was much more of a reality ancient times than here in suburbia, and the Book of Kings only amplifies the situation by setting the story of the widow of Zaraphath in a time of tremendous famine and drought. What I want Ito get across today is that being a widow in biblical times likely meant being a marginal person. A widow was potentially someone who lived on the fringes of humanity. She was likely the poorest of the poor.
Even in such bitter situations as living in famine and abject poverty, even in the face of having lost their spouses and being left with nothing and no one to take their part or assist them, even in the face of now losing the last hope they might have had, their children, these widows, these marginal women living on the fringes of society, trusted in God, hoped in God, looked to God and believed that God would deliver them, if not in this life then in the next. These poor little ones were God’s own daughters. They were the favored ones among all others. Yet, and this may come as a surprise to you, I do not believe that God demands that we must be poor like these widows in order to gain divine favor. Perhaps we might aspire to be something like them in their faith, but if faith is related in any way to one’s life experiences then I somehow doubt that we who live comfortable lives of wealth and plenty are going to come anywhere near the faith experience of the widows, nor would we likely desire it since it would entail experiencing life as harsh and unmerciful, especially in how others would relate to us.
Thus we are left with a question. It’s a bit of something for us to figure out for ourselves on our own, so I won’t offer you many examples. It has everything to do with how we carry on our lives if we are serious about being the children of God.
The question to consider has to do with how these widows affect our lives. What difference do they make to us? It should be clear to us that God is oriented toward people like the widows in today’s readings. God cares deeply about the lives, experiences, pains, trials, and every day difficulties of marginal people, of people living on the fringes of our world. The logical step for us to take is to understand that if God cares for the poor little ones of the world, then it is our responsibility as Christians to imitate the actions and attitudes of God. We, then, who live lives filled with plenty are to be oriented toward those who need God’s mercy most, which is only fitting in this year that the pope has proclaimed as a jubilee year of mercy. If there are any people for whom our first inclination would be to reject or otherwise assign a second class status for any reason, we should reexamine our attitudes and align ourselves with the attitude of God.
Our job, then, is not to become poor, rejected, despised, or unwanted. Rather it is to embrace those completely who experience life as such. This is true mercy. If we feel that we are in any way being coerced to care for the poor of the world then we should ask whether our hearts are truly part of the Christian experience.
What we are to do remains up to us to decide in the ordinary times of our lives, for these are the times that will judge us.