She put in everything she possessed. (Mark 12:38-44)
When the books of Old Testament refer to the poor they often list three categories of people: the stranger, the orphan and the widow (Deut 14:29). The Hebrew Scriptures constantly invite people to be sensitive to the needs of these three types of vulnerable people: the stranger, the orphan and the widow (Ps 94:6; Jer 7:11). When it talks about the justice of God, the Old Testament speaks of the God who defends the stranger, the orphan and the widow (Ps 146:9). It is in this context that the first reading of today becomes even more meaningful. At a time of scarcity, Prophet Elijah, instead of helping the widow, requests help from her. The poor widow generously offers the prophet the last bit of food that she had. The Lord God blesses her generosity, abundantly: “The jar of meal was not spent nor the jug of oil emptied” (1Kings 1:16).
In the New Testament, Jesus invites those who want to follow him to be kind to the poor: “Go and sell what you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Mk 10:21). But Jesus is not glorifying material poverty. He invites us to be “poor in spirit” (Mt 5:3). Therefore, the virtue of detachment or ‘poverty in spirit’ is not just a challenge for those who are rich in the material sense, but for the poor as well.
Against this backdrop, the gospel text of today becomes very telling. In the last few Sundays, we have been reflecting on the events taking place as Jesus was on his journey towards Jerusalem. The powerful theme that was emerging in the teachings of Jesus during that journey was ‘discipleship’. Now Jesus has entered Jerusalem(Mk 11). Jesus is inside the temple in Jerusalem, and he is touched by the generosity of this poor widow towards her religion, as she contributes to the maintenance of the temple and the upkeep of the priests. Jesus uses this occasion to once again impart a message on discipleship. The widow in today’s gospel was not only materially poor – because she was a widow, but also poor in spirit – because “she from the little she had has put in everything she possessed, all she had to live on” (Mk12:44). A true disciple is poor in spirit – being able to totally depend on God. A true disciple is able to make themselves vulnerable in front of God. A true disciple is able to give to God the best part of oneself.
Often we water down the meaning of this text, or rob the text of its depth of meaning by quoting it as an example of generosity. (Oh yes, generosity is a good human virtue!) Or, some avaricious church ministers may even use this text to exhort their people to contribute generously to church collection. I think, the meaning of the text here goes beyond money, wealth, and possessions: Am I able to make myself vulnerable in the presence of God? Am I able to stand before God, with my arms open and empty, with my mind still searching for answers, and my heart ready to respond to the Grace of God? Or am I seeking false security in my past achievements, in my name and fame, in my knowledge and education, in my material wealth, and in my attachment to people?
The story of the widow is only the culmination in a series of people in the Gospels who abandon their false securities in the presence of God:
• The Magi open their treasures and humbly prostrate before the baby in whom they have seen the presence of God (Mt 2:1-11);
• The disciples when called by Jesus to leave their boats, hired men and even their father and follow Jesus (Mk 1:20, also Mt 4:22);
• When Mathew the tax collector encounters Jesus he is ready to leave his table and follow Jesus (Lk 5:27-28);
• Zacchaeus is willing to give half of his property to the poor (Lk 19:9);
• Bartimaeus, the blind beggar, leaves his upper garment and comes to Jesus in a symbolic nakedness (Mk 10:50); and,
• The Samaritan woman after her encounter with Jesus leaves her empty water jar at the feet of Jesus in a symbolic abandonment of her past (Jn 4:28).
A question that we can all ask ourselves then is: what is it that I am still holding on to – that prevents me from totally surrendering myself to God?
The two copper coins of the lady symbolize also the readings of last Sunday: the love of God and neighbor.
She in having and giving of her all, received much more; the best being that of Jesus’ acknowledgment. In doing so, she gained eternal life.
Fr. Franco Pereira, S.D.B.