Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time: The Widow’s Mite

To the readers of Vox Nova:  I have not been posting much lately, as you may have noticed.  One excuse is that I have been busy with my new job, which is proving to be much more time consuming that I had thought it would be.  And I ask your prayers:  being a chairman is hard work, but I am really enjoying this opportunity.

But, at the same time, I have to admit that I have been having a hard time putting pen to paper, as it were.   I have ideas, and I promised one of our readers that I would respond on issues related to race, George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin.  But when I go to write, the few ideas I have seem like shards that I cannot assemble.

Reading this, you might be afraid that I am throwing in the towel and moving on, as so many of our great contributors have done over the past couple of years.   But something happened in the past week that has given me the hope (and perhaps the courage) to try again.  My wife and I joined a small discussion group at Church that has been reading and praying over Pope Francis’ first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium.   This past week we read Chapter 3, where the Pope aims much of his writing to priests and deacons as he talks about the importance of good preaching for spreading the Good News that is Jesus Christ.   Our discussion turned, predictably, to the generally poor status of preaching in the Catholic Church.   This is exacerbated here in the South, as we have many adult converts (including two in the reading group) and they have experienced the high quality preaching that is the hallmark of baptist and evangelical churches in the region.   And then last night, at the vigil mass, I endured one more uninspiring, forgettable homily.  (Literally:  I cannot, for the life of me, remember anything he said.)   In exasperation, I said to myself, “I can do better than that!”  Today, while praying with my fraternity on the theme of “God centered poverty”, the same thought crossed my mind.  And it seems that God responded with a rather tart, “Put up or shut up!” 

Did God really speak to me in that moment, or was that my own vanity and pride issuing the challenge?  I do not know.  But the following is the result, and it arose nearly spontaneously as I reflected on the readings for this Sunday.  If this works, I shall try to write on again next week, and the week after, until I burn out, get distracted, or discover something about myself. 

Your thoughts and criticisms on both subject and form (as a sermon) are welcome.  I have not responded much to the comments I have gotten on recent posts, but I have read them, and I do take them to heart, particularly when our regular readers speak from the heart.


In today’s Gospel we hear the familiar story of the widow whose small contribution to the Temple treasury (two small coins, her “mites” in the language of the King James Bible) was noted and praised by Jesus.  We know why Jesus praised her gift, but have you asked yourself why she made this gift to the Temple?  She was poor in a time when the only social safety net was adult sons or the uncertain generosity of better-off neighbors.  And as she waited to make her offering, she would have seen that those same neighbors were making much larger offerings, and would probably have known that her small gift would be met with, at best, perfunctory thanks from the Temple officials overseeing the collection.

Why then did she give away “all she had to live on”?  She was not simply keeping up appearances or obeying some rule, “the Law” or custom of the time.  She was too marginal  to be noticed by those who treated their gifts as tokens in the social game, and probably too poor to be criticized by even the most legalistic scribe.   Rather, she did this because she believed that this is what God wanted.    God had asked this of her, and she had the faith to respond to His request.

Preposterous! you might say: why would the God who “sustains the widow” (as today’s psalm puts it) demand back the little bit of sustenance he had sent her way?   But in the first reading we see clearly that God does make such requests.   Elijah went to Zarephath and imposed on this widow precisely because God told him to do so.  Speaking with God’s authority, he demanded that this widow feed him the last food she had for herself and her son.   She had no idea of the miracle that was about to occur.  She was tired, hungry, and without hope.   Drought and famine had reduced her and her only son (at least, I presume he was such) to dire straits:  they would eat their last morsel and then die, two more victims of famine to be buried and forgotten.

She could very well have asked Elijah why he did not demand her better off neighbors, those with the wealth to buy food in a time of famine, to feed him.   But through the voice of the prophet, she heard God asking her to feed the prophet instead of her son.  The same God who asked  her forefather Abraham to give to Him the life of his only son, Isaac.  Abraham responded in faith, and she could do no less.

In the same way, the widow who threw two small coins in the Temple collection heard and responded to the demand of God for all she had.  She was, perhaps, strengthened in faith because she knew that long ago God, through Elijah, had fed the widow of Zarephath and her son.  She had faith that God would “give food to the hungry” and “sustain the widow”—faith that was stronger than her own bitter experience, which probably told her that the poor and marginalized often went hungry while their “betters” ate their fill.   And in faith she said yes to God.

So if our God makes such demands of a poor widow, what does he ask of us?  Most of us are, by almost any measure, substantially better off than her.  Do we hear God calling to us, asking us to give without reserve?  Do we hear the voice of Jesus saying to the rich young man:  “If you would be perfect, go, sell all that you have and give it to the poor, and then come follow me!”   (Cf. Luke 18:22.) There is no single correct response to this call.  Some, like the poor widow, give all that they have.   The tax collector Zacchaeus, responded by giving away half his fortune—enough for Jesus to declare that salvation had come to his house.  The only wrong answer is to turn and walk away, sad, because our possessions matter more than God’s call.

Today, like every day, God is calling us, asking us, begging us to give of ourselves, of our substance and not our surplus.  Today, as He does every Sunday, God gives us the Body and Blood of his only Son, showing that He himself has not held back anything in his love for us.  And he wants us to respond in kind.  Most of us are not ready to give it all away.  And that is okay.  There are many ways to respond, and all of them are pleasing to God.  Today and in the week ahead, resolve to give a little more of yourself:  in the collection basket, to Catholic Charities, to the neighbor who’s lost his job and can’t find a new one, to the homeless addict who sleeps behind your office building, to the refugees from Syria we hear about in the news.   Take the first step in faith, and then take another.  God will be there for you as you do.  For Jesus promised:  “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Luke 6:38).

About David Cruz-Uribe
  • http://annierooney45blog.wordpress.com annierooney45

    David, I am so glad you ‘put up’ rather than ‘shut up’! A beautiful homily! Only for the fact that I am in Brisbane, Australia, I would think that we were at the same vigil mass on Saturday night. My formation is in Ignatian spirituality and I recently formed an Ignatian prayer group in my parish; in our meeting last week we reflected on this gospel. As I listened to our vigil homily I thought as you did: the material I prepared and delivered to my group was far more nourishing and soul-inspiring. To paraphrase Francis: I prepared it with love and the desire to take them to a spiritual depth we are not experiencing in our churches, and that the words of 1 Sam “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening” will ring true. Thank you again and I look forward to your next offering.

  • Chris

    David,

    Do you really think Jesus praised the poor widow who gave all she had to live on (which the text does not say) , so that tommorrow she would starve, to a corrupt and rapacious religious institution that had gone wrong and whose temple Jesus was about to say would be completely destroyed? Or was he lamenting the way the religious hierarchy was exploiting the poor as per the previous verses ?

    If a poor widow approached the Church offering to give all she had to live on, we would tell her infallibly that this would not be the will of God.

    God Bless

    • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

      Chris,

      reading this passage and the parallel passage in Luke 21:1-4, I see no other way to read it than as approbation on the part of Jesus. Read this passage in conjunction with Jesus’ other teaching on self-giving, and it is hard to see this as anything other than praise. If he was calling out religious exploitation, I think he would have been more direct. My sense is that Mark juxtaposed these two pericopes because they both mention a widow; otherwise, they seem unconnected.

      And I am certain we would not tell a widow anything “infallibly” :-) As for whether we would advise against such a gift, this would require discernment and a look at the cases. Francis of Assisi stripped himself naked and renounced a great fortune (his father was arguably one of the richest men in Assisi) to live as a beggar on alms. In the same way other saints gave away all they had to live on and trusted in God to provide. Many of them had a hard time of it, but saw their reward in the end. So what is to prevent a poor widow from doing the same thing?

    • Chris

      David,

      I think it is significant that in the immediately preceeding text, Jesus condemns the scribes who devour the houses of widows (line their own pockets by exploiting the poor) and in the immediately following text Jesus says, of the temple the widows 2 coins are funding:

      “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be one stone left upon another that will not be thrown down.”

      That inclusion frames the context for interpreting the widows gift, as it does in Luke.

      There is no comparison between a poor widow giving away all she has to live on to fund a costly and elaborate temple, and will hence starve to death, and a wealthy merchant’s son giving away his wealth to feed the poor, who knows he can survive on alms, or, if not, at least go back to his wealthy family.

      No minister in the Catholic Church ought to be counselling any poor widow to give away everything she needs to live on in order to fund the institutional Church. That is certainly not the will of God.

      I think this passage is an always relevant warning of the dangers of institutional religion lining their pockets by exploiting the poor.

      God Bless

      • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

        A couple comments: St. Francis did not give his wealth away to the poor. In fact, he stole his father’s money to give to the Church. More precisely, he gave the money to the pastor of the semi-ruined church of San Damiano to rebuild it.

        Second, I would give your reading more credence if Jesus had said anything which could be construed as drawing this connection. He does not. All he says is (quoting Luke since I have that window open):

        “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. 4 All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”

        I honestly cannot read this as anything except approbation and praise for her actions, and a (mild) rebuke for those who are generous out of their surplus but not out of their substance.

  • Agellius

    For what it’s worth, I recently read what I thought was an interesting interpretation of this reading. They pointed out that Jesus doesn’t actually use any words of praise for the widow, he simply points out that she has given of her substance. The larger context – starting at the end of the prior chapter — seems to indicate that his intention is rather to condemn the scribes, who love public honors and the best places at feasts, and who “devour widows’ houses”.

    In other words, the hypocritical scribes put a lot of pressure on people to give in order to support the temple, so that they can live lives of luxury and honor; and they do this on the backs of poor widows as well as the rich. They then try to excuse the demands of the temple tax by pointing out how beautifully the temple is maintained using these funds, and Jesus replies that the temple is about to be destroyed.

    Lk. 20:45: Then, in the hearing of all the people, He said to His disciples, 46 “Beware of the scribes, who desire to go around in long robes, love greetings in the marketplaces, the best seats in the synagogues, and the best places at feasts, 47 who devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. These will receive greater condemnation.”

    21:1 And He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury, 2 and He saw also a certain poor widow putting in two mites. 3 So He said, “Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all; 4 for all these out of their abundance have put in offerings for God, but she out of her poverty put in all the livelihood that she had.”

    21:5 Then, as some spoke of the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and donations, He said, 6 “These things which you see—the days will come in which not one stone shall be left upon another that shall not be thrown down.”

    • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

      Agellius, see my response to Chris above. Let me just add to it that the scribes did not run the Temple: this was reserved to the priestly caste, I believe. I looked around for more on this passage and on this interpretation. The Jewish Study Bible (a great reference) mentions your thesis in passing but dismisses it. Here are the notes on Luke 21:1-4 from the USCCB bible page:

      The widow is another example of the poor ones in this gospel whose detachment from material possessions and dependence on God leads to their blessedness (Lk 6:20). Her simple offering provides a striking contrast to the pride and pretentiousness of the scribes denounced in the preceding section (Lk 20:45–47). The story is taken from Mk 12:41–44.

      I am still leaning towards my original reading, that these two pericopes were placed close to one another because they mention widows, but are not otherwise linked. If Jesus was going to beat up on the Temple hierarchy he would do it rather directly.

  • Mark VA

    Well done, David!

    Don’t throw in the towel, please, but try to persevere thru this period. My three cent’s worth regarding the form and subject of your discourse are these:

    The form flows well, it’s concise in logic (nothing less is expected of you, of course), scope, and length. I would add to the subject that in addition to material types of poverty, we also need to help those (including ourselves) in need of education. The older I get, the more this chain of causality becomes apparent to me – poor education leading to a myriad of very preventable problems.

    Generally speaking, I think many homilies would benefit from a technique called “cycling”: for example, presenting an idea from a high conceptual level, working it down to “street level” applications, and then back up again – or the inverse (I prefer the inversion when I use it in my little domain). As time allows, these cycles can be repeated several times, and when done well, the listeners/students should go thru an exhilarating and substantive exercise:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WZ0_lLwp1Gw

    • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

      Yes, you have commented on education before. But there is only so much I can get into an eight minute homily. Well, actually, I did not time it. I was shooting for 500 words, which is about an 8-10 minute homily (I think), but this is somewhat longer. Maybe I could make up for it by speaking in a fast monotone! :-)

      Variations of cycling are very useful in teaching math, but I had never thought to apply it to a homily. In math, the idea is to always go from the concrete to the abstract, and then back to the concrete.

  • julietkidgerbury

    My priest also connected this story to the story of the rich man who could not part with all he had and make the poor his priority. He shared his opinion that if the rich man would have done what Jesus was calling him to do then a widow such as this one would have been exactly the sort of candidate to experience his generosity. Maybe a too-focused lens on the activity of the widow misses the scandal that she should have to live in a world where poverty exists?

    • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

      I agree that had the rich man given alms, the widow (or widows like her) would have been the recipient of them: the OT is pretty specific on who you should give alms to. But I do want to focus on the widow since I don’t want to reduce her to an object that exists so that the rich might perform charity. She has agency, and I think it is worth exploring the choices she makes, if only so that they put our own choices into stark relief.

  • Ronald King

    David, In the first reading Elijah is told to beg for assistance from the widow which seems to me very symbolic of what God expects from the spiritual leaders of the church. They are to be examples of living in poverty and their identification with those most vulnerable and marginalized is the foundation for the development of a truly miraculous faith and church. It seems to me that God is not asking the poor and marginalized to give everything they have, rather, God is asking the leaders of the church to become poor and marginalized themselves. Jesus tells us that if we fight to keep our lives we will lose them but if we lose ourselves we will gain everything. The church seems to fighting to keep what it has and is losing.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

      Ron, sorry to be getting back to you so late—things got busy again. I am not sure that you can read 1 Kings as saying that Elijah was directed to “beg” from a poor woman. The verses prior to the reading reads:

      Then the word of the Lord came to him: 9 “Go at once to Zarephath in the region of Sidon and stay there. I have directed a widow there to supply you with food.”

      This combined with the rather direct tone Elijah adopts does not sound like begging. Rather, he seems to be commanding, albeit very politely–perhaps “requesting his due” is a better way to put it. However, I think there is something to this reading. Elijah may be demanding a great deal of the poor widow, but it is also to her that God’s miracles are directed: both the flour and oil that does not fail during a famine, but also the raising of her son. And Jesus makes a point of noting that God sent Elijah not to a widow of Israel, but to a widow from Sidon (Luke 4:25-26), a clear sign that God is aligning himself (and His Church) with the poor and marginalized. I think this shows that there is a dynamic tension here, with both a sending forth to and a call to respond directed at the poor.

  • Chris

    Bp Thomas Gumbleton has an excellent homily on this passage.

    http://ncronline.org/blogs/peace-pulpit/demand-changes-structured-injustice

    God Bless

    • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

      Thank you Chris—another, very different take on the gospel.

  • Pingback: A follow up to the Widow’s Mite | Vox Nova()

  • Thales

    David,

    Thank you for your thoughtfulness and for all your time in sharing your thoughts with your blog readers! I know we’re all busy, so I wouldn’t blame you at all if you had to move on to other priorities — so thank you for coming back to the blog. And thank you for keeping me in mind with regard to the racism topic. If/when you are able to put words to paper, I would be very interested in them. (By the way, if it is easier to respond via email, you can always email me at my thales address.)

    As for your reflection on the Widow’s Mite, I think that you are spot on. I agree with you that the story’s important message (and in my opinion, the primary message) is the importance of giving of your substance, not of your surplus — and possibly, giving of all we have — when asked by God. So, on this topic, I agree with you completely!

    • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

      We have agreed before, Thales, so I am not completely surprised! As for coming back—I never really left as I was minding the shop in the “back room” as it were. But the Spirit had deserted me when it came to writing. This homily series is quite hard, but it is something I feel called to do. So keep dropping by and sharing your thoughts, and please, feel free to be critical if you think what I write fails theologically or pastorally. (Is “homelitically” a word?)