The Widows

Whenever I re-read or hear the story of the widow in the first book of Kings, or the story of the widow in Mark, chapter 12, I am reminded of my maternal grandmother, Margaret Canty. Like her husband, Patrick, and my paternal grandparents, Thomas and Margaret Brennan, Margaret Canty came to Chicago from Ireland as an adolescent. She never returned to her homeland. She and Patrick were not wealthy. She was a housewife and a mother. He had a job with the Belt Railroad. They raised eight daughters, one of whom was my mother. Another child, Patrick Junior, died as an infant. I only knew my grandmother until I was five. She died in her early 70s. She was the only grandparent that I knew. In her final years, she largely sat in a chair in the living room, a heart patient. But as I grew up, I heard many stories about Margaret Canty.
These stories usually were about her generosity and hospitality. Though she was busy caring for eight children and a house, she always shared resources with other people. As other family members and friends came over from Ireland she would share her home with them, until they became established. She obviously shared physical space and food with them, though the family had only meager resources. She particularly enjoyed bringing young Irish men into her home who were interested in the priesthood. She supported them in many ways, including financially. As these young men became ordained, they went on to become lifelong friends of the family - and some of my mentoring heroes.
What has always struck me about my grandmother was her generosity, in the midst of the family's limited resources. She was willing to share from her scarcity because her interior life was characterized by a consciousness of abundance. She did not worry about what she had or how much she had. Rather she willingly shared whatever she could with whomever was in need. She did not stockpile resources for the future, but rather gave what she could with immediacy to those around her.
The widow in the first book of Kings reminds me of my grandmother. The land that she lived in was going through a drought. Food and resources were scarce. God directed Elijah to seek this widow out in the midst of his hunger, thirst, and fatigue. In a previous passage that we do not hear this week, God instructed Elijah that this widow would care for him. At least in part, this passage is about God's providential love for Elijah, the widow, and her son. Though she initially resists the notion of helping Elijah because of her own poverty, she eventually provides him with food and drink, forgetting her own needs. Because of her self sacrificial love she, the prophet, and her son were blessed with enough food for a year.
Similarly we hear of a generous widow in Mark's Gospel. The context is the pretentiousness of the religious leaders who enjoyed the power and prestige of being religious leaders. At the time, religious leaders were very wealthy - they taxed the peasant people excessively, sometimes bending religious laws to take over their property. It was easy for them to give large sums of money to the religious institution. In the gospel, a poor widow entered the scene and was able to only give two small coins to the treasury. Jesus said that the generosity of the widow exceeded the generosity of the religious leaders. She gave a little from her poverty. Reference is made, by Jesus, in the gospel, of how the religious leaders devoured the houses of widows. This is a reference to how the wealthy religious leaders would foreclose on the property of others, making the property their own, making the former owners to work on the property for them, or finding others to work on the property.
The simple Jewish people of this age paid 20% of all that they made to the religious institution. In addition, they had to pay taxes to the Roman government. I will return to this shortly, but this passage is a portrait of how the religious institution of Jesus's day was in collusion with Rome. They both became domination systems that abused the ordinary, simple people of the day.
The two widows are examples to us of generosity in the midst of scarcity. From the little they had, they were willing to share with others, even if those others were being mean-spirited and abusive. The two widows remind us that we should not seek the false security of stockpiling abundance. Rather we should live in a spirit of stewardship, experiencing all that we do have as gifts from God to be shared with others - especially with those in need, like Irish immigrants decades ago and Elijah in today's first reading.
In my own family of origin, both of my parents had to work to make ends meet. My mother really ran the business of the family, managing the finances of the home. She was quite frugal and discerning of how money was used. Implicit in this week's readings, in this reflection on stewardship, is the importance of learning how to use resources responsibly and well. As stewards, we need to grow in a spirituality of " yes and no." We need to learn what to say yes to, and when we should say no. Such a spirituality should be taught to and modeled for children and young people who live in a culture that basically says every desire should be gratified.
For a moment, let us return to the culture that is the context of the gospel this week. Rome and the Jewish Temple system cooperated with each other in taxing and burdening ordinary people. They were domination systems. Part of the reason that Jewish leaders of the time did not appreciate Jesus was that he challenged the Temple taxes and practices of sacrifice. Jesus was upset that poor people were being used and abused by domination systems. Especially to the religious domination system of the Temple culture, Jesus was a tremendous threat. Both he and John the Baptist taught that God's forgiveness was available everywhere and anywhere. People did not have to come to the temple or offer sacrifice to connect with God. These teachings on the proximity of and availability of God's love and forgiveness threatened the religious institution and practices that controlled people and made the religious leaders wealthy.
The second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews critiques the culture of animal sacrifices conducted by priests. To engage in animal sacrifice was a ritual whereby it was believed the people were connected to God by the multiple sacrifices offered by priests. Hebrews teaches that there was one perfect sacrifice that ultimately connects us with God and God's forgiveness. That sacrifice was  the death of Jesus on the cross. Hebrews teaches that this one perfect sacrifice happened once, and there is no longer need to continue animal sacrifices. I have heard misguided critiques of Catholic life that says when we offer the Eucharist we are offering multiple sacrifices. This is not true. There was one perfect sacrifice: the death of Jesus, leading to his resurrection and glorification. When we celebrate the mass, we are re-presenting or making present again the one, perfect sacrifice, that we might partake in it in an ongoing, continuous way. By remembering Jesus in the Eucharist, and his life death and resurrection, he becomes present again, and we enter into communion with him and one other in the mystery of life, death, and resurrection. The Letter to the Hebrews also teaches that there is going to be at some time a second coming of Jesus Christ. We do not know when or how, but this is a significant part of our faith tradition.
On this Veterans Day, let us be grateful for the incredible generosity that so many men and women engaged in, sacrificing time, safety, and in some cases their lives, for the well-being of our country. So many veterans returned without the proper thanks and appreciation that they deserved for risking their lives for the rest of us. They truly were and are reflections of the two widows and the self-sacrificing Jesus. Thank you!
In Jesus,
Pat Brennan
Faith Sharing Questions for Small Christian Communities
1) Have you ever known someone like Margaret or the two widows, who were generous though he or she did not have much?
2) Why do people worry about stockpiling money and things?
3) What are contemporary domination systems in our own day?
4) Is organized religion in any way a domination system?
5) What is the most important point in this week's passage from the Letter to the Hebrews?
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