As we approach the end of this year in the liturgical cycle, the first reading and the gospel show us instances of extreme generosity by poor widows, while the second reading foreshadows the emphasis on the glorious return of Jesus which will become a major theme in the next few weeks.
In the first reading — 1 Kings 17:10-16 — we hear the story of Elijah and the (pagan) widow of the (pagan) city of Zarephath in (pagan) Sidon. The background is that the wicked King of Israel, Ahab, has married Jezebel, the daughter of the King of Sidon, and under her influence has introduced the worship of her god into Israel. Through Elijah, God announced that he was sending a drought on the land. Remarkably, God sent Elijah to the country of Jezebel’s father to be safe from Ahab, promising that a widow would provide for him. This is why, as the reading begins, Elijah goes to Zarephath and requests hospitality from a poor widow. Her generosity and reliance on the word of Israel’s God bring her and her son life in place of the death which had seemed their certain fate.
We should strive to emulate the widow’s faith in the word of God which is proclaimed to us, with its promise, not of earthly life, but of eternal life: the salvation promised in the second reading.
The responsorial psalm — Ps 146:7-10, with response from the beginning of the psalm — leads us to make our own, the sort of faith in God’s care for us that the widow of Zarephath exhibited, and to praise God for that loving care. The words recall those of Isaiah which Jesus quoted in the synagogue at Nazareth (Luke 4:16-21; Isaiah 61:12), as well as the description of the Lord’s care for the widow, the orphan, and the alien, in Deuteronomy 10:18, which then the people (we) are commanded to emulate.
In the gospel — Mark 12:38-44 — Jesus is approaching the last days of his ministry, teaching in Jerusalem. He begins with a warning against the pride and greed of the scribes, whose conduct is the very opposite of God’s care for widows. Jesus then calls attention to the generosity of a certain widow. At that time, widows, having lost the income produced by their husbands, basically had no reliable source of income. If there were children, they would be expected to support them. Otherwise, they had to rely on charity from others. So the generosity of this widow who gave all she had to the temple is the most radical generosity possible, and must be based on an absolute faith in God’s providential care.
The widow, in giving all she had, is in effect an example of total self-giving. Jesus, giving himself on the cross shows us the epitome of such a gift of self. Pope St. John Paul II teaches us in his Theology of the Body, that marriage is a promise of the mutual self-giving of each spouse totally to the other and that celibacy for the kingdom of God should be a comparable self-giving of the celibate to God.
The theme of self-giving is also found in the second reading — Hebrews 9:24-28. We continue to hear about Jesus as our high priest. There are three main themes: Jesus offers himself to the Father once; this self-offering is on our behalf and takes away our sins; and he will return to bring the fullness of salvation to those whose sins have been taken away.
We might ask the Holy Spirit to show us to what extent we give ourselves either to a spouse or to God. If not in a state which calls for such a total self-giving, do we still give generously of ourselves to those who are in our lives, and do we realize that ultimately all we have and all we are belongs to God? On the other hand, to what extent do we seek to maintain our status, like the scribes of whom Jesus speaks? Do we neglect the needs of others while concentrating on being admired in our community or in our circles of friends and associates? Is our religiosity empty, or even partially for show? We can ask God to help us be more like these generous widows and less like the greedy and status-seeking scribes.
The Catholic belief is that the Mass brings that unique sacrifice of Jesus to us so that we become participants in it as members of his body. This participation should strengthen us to live out the message of the scriptures, if we accept the grace of God which enables us to do so. We can be both those who proclaim God’s loving care and who provide for the needs of others on God’s behalf.