Like many passages in scripture, this one delivers messages in layers. One layer has to do with the immediate circumstances of the prophet Elijah. This prophet had invoked the wrath of Ahab, king of Israel, who had married a Phoenician woman, Jezebel, and turned to worship of Baal. Elijah, on God’s instructions, declared that, until Elijah said otherwise, there would be a drought in the land. Also on God’s instructions, Elijah sought out the widow mentioned in this passage while hiding from Ahab.
The lesson more immediate to us, however, is found in the humility and generosity of the widow, a Gentile, who risked her life and the life of her son by giving Elijah something to eat. Jesus would call attention to this incident as a sign that God’s mercy extends beyond Israel—a radical idea at the time. (Luke 4:26) Moreover, Jesus calls his disciples—that’s us—to the same level of generosity, which we see demonstrated again in today’s gospel reading.
“The Lord secures justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry …. gives sight to the blind …. Raises up those who were bowed down …. protects strangers.” God’s own mercy is magnified by the extent to which we participate in it. So many people are without homes or food or health care. So many are marginalized, neglected, mistreated, only because they are “other”—they speak a different language, wear different clothes, or have a different complexion than the dominant population. It’s an enormous problem, but ours are the lips, hands, and feet with which God can address it.
The author writes that Christ will come again to those who eagerly await him. That’s one of the themes of the holy season we will soon enter, Advent. Those four weeks are intended as a time of preparation for our celebration of the Nativity, but they are also intended as a time to raise our awareness of our own nativity to come, when we will be born to new life because of the Paschal mystery. As we try to live each day as Jesus taught us, during Advent and beyond, we should keep our eye on that prize, eternal life in the presence of God.
On the day after Pope Francis was elected, he telephoned a newspaper dealer in Buenos Aires to notify him that he no longer needed to deliver a paper to the former Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio. While he was archbishop, Francis used to save the elastic bands from the daily paper and occasionally return them to the dealer. Those simple acts are elegant examples of the lesson Jesus teaches, twice, in today’s gospel reading: do not be like the scribes who like to lord it over other people; instead, be like the widow who considers the common good, the wellbeing of others, more important than her own.
We have opportunities every day to respond to this lesson, in how we speak to one another; how we work with one another; how we drive; how we treat restaurant servers and grocery clerks. Jesus described himself as “meek and humble of heart.” (Matthew 11:29) He asks no less of us.
Photo by Aswin Vaswani on Unsplash
Charles Paolino, who is pinch-hitting for Bill Ayres, is managing editor at RENEW International and a permanent deacon of the Diocese of Metuchen.