“[Elijah] called out to her, ‘Please bring me a small cupful of water to drink.’She left to get it, and he called out after her, ‘Please bring along a bit of bread.’”(1 Kings 17:1b-11)In the name …
This afternoon some of us from the parish are heading out to Boston right after Mass to see the tale of a promiscuous woman who used her voluptuous body to toy with men and to get what she wanted from them, and if that were not enough for a church-group Sunday outing, there’s also knife fights, jealousy, stealing, infidelity and even murder.Just another Sunday afternoon at Holy Name.What we’re going out to see is the opera Carmen.Now she’s an independent and strong woman.She boasts that as a gypsy she was born free and she will die free no matter what, which leads to Carmen’s unwillingness to become attached to anyone.She is emotionally brutal.Life has been difficult to her, and she gives back what she gets with gusto.
In today’s Old Testament reading, we encounter another strong and independent woman:The widow of Zare-phath.As a widow and mother of a young child, she has had to fend for herself.No one has given her much of anything in life. But unlike Carmen, along with this streak of independence, she’s also a very caring and compassionate person.She knows very well the meanness of this life, but she has not allowed this to make her callous in turn.Carmen battled the world, but the world won because she became like the world.Carmen bragged of her freedom, but the world imprisoned her and defined her on its terms.The widow of Zare-phath, on the other hand, rose above the ways of the world.She was in control.When the world did everything it could to make her selfish and uncaring, she proved generous to a fault.
In today’s reading, we are told of a drought that has made water scarce and food unavailable.The widow of Zare-phath has nothing to share.She’s down to her last supplies and realizes that when these are gone she will die.At this point, Elijah appears.He’s a complete stranger.She doesn’t know him as a prophet of God.Elijah asks for a cup of water, which she graciously offers to share.But on the way back to get the water, he also asks for food.Elijah is asking her to share the very last meal that she has.There’s not enough for her and her son, and yet Elijah wants her to share even that little amount with him.Again, she doesn’t know he’s a proven prophet of God.She’s not expecting a miracle.And yet she shares what little she has with him.Why?
It’s not because he’s Elijah.The widow isn’t even Jewish.She’s from the land of Sidon to the north of Israel.That’s why she says to Elijah, “As the Lord, your God lives …”Elijah’s God is not hers.So she’s not sharing what she has with him because of respect for the prophet or even for his god.So again, why does she?It simply has to be her compassion for another person who is suffering just like she is.Carmen was hardened by the world, and we’re going to enjoy her story this afternoon as she gives it right back to the world.But this morning, we’re to be inspired by the example of the widow of Zare-phath.The cards dealt to her in life were extremely poor, but rather than return the same to others, she somehow remained concerned and compassionate.She only saw in Elijah another person, but that was enough for her to share what she had.This wasn’t about expecting anything in return from “your God;” her kindness was simply meant for another person in desperate need, and this is held out as an example of virtue and morality.
In this context, let me mention the lead story in Wednesday’s Greenfield Recorder that New England has become the least religious region in the nation.According to the mostrecent figures gathered by Trinity College in Hartford, CT, over a half a million Americans choose to leave organized religion every year, and the greatest percentage of that figure is right here.The ones who leave aren’t saying that they don’t believe in God.They’re saying they don’t believe in church.This isn’t all that far off from today’s Gospel when we hear Jesus’ condemnation of the quote-unquote church of His day.He complains of their pride and greed, and Jesus tells the people all around Him to beware of them.And then Jesus goes directly into the story of the poor widow’s contribution to the Temple-treasury.How many times I’ve heard this story told in a positive way, even the activity hand-out for our children today does the same thing, and yet I don’t think it’s meant to be positive.Jesus condemns in one breath the religious leaders who “devour the houses of the widows.”Then He tells the story of watching one such poor widow who “contributed all she had.”Some try to offer this story as one of faithful generosity, maybe along the lines of the widow of Zare-phath, but it follows right after Jesus’ condemnation of the rapacity of the religious leaders of His day.So what’s the difference between the widow of Zare-phath who shares all that she has and the widow at the Temple who contributes all she had?
I think it’s the reason behind the generosity.The first widow shared all that she had with Elijah to help another person who was hungry and thirsty just like she was.She empathized with the man and that personal connection is what defined the morality of her act.The poor widow outside of the Temple, however, was likewise giving “all she had,” but for the glory of an already rich building.Her motive is pious, but the religious leaders who impoverish a widow to add more glory to a building are condemned by Jesus. The message of both the Old and New Testaments is that people matter to God.If churches glory in their decorations, then they forget this revelation.If churches get their priorities mixed-up, if the church concentrates on herself rather than God and others, if she’s more motivated to protect herself than to serve others, we lose our way, and people can sense this in the voice of their own consciences, and they hold on to God but maybe not to the church, and maybe that’s why half a million Americans left organized religions last year.This is a hard lesson for the church, but let us pray that Jesus guide us so that both worship and service, glory to God and compassion for neighbour, appropriately define who we are.For this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.(+)