A Scriptural Reflection on the Readings for Sunday, November 11, 2012 | Carl E. Olson
1 Kngs 17:10-16
Ps 146:7, 8-9, 9-10
“Substance over style.” This phrase is a good reminder that
a culture filled with empty rhetoric, flashing lights, endless entertainment,
and the promise of bigger and better cannot satisfy our ultimate needs and
It also raises the question: What substance? How to identify
it? Today’s guide to the answer is the widow.
Widows are mentioned close to a hundred times in the Bible.
They have a special place, along with orphans, the fatherless, and the
oppressed, within the Law and the Prophets; they represent those who are
afflicted, vulnerable, and deserted. “You shall not afflict any widow or
orphan,” the Lord told the Israelites, “If you do afflict them, and they cry
out to me, I will surely hear their cry…” (Ex. 22:22-3). They were reminded
that Yahweh is “the great, the mighty, and the terrible God, who is not partial
and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and
loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing” (Deut. 10:17-18).
The widow met by the prophet Elijah was not only destitute,
she was not an Israelite; Zarephath was a Phoenician town on the Mediterranean
coast. Seeking shelter and safety from King Ahab, Elijah had been told by the
Lord that the widow would be waiting for him (1 Kgs. 17:9). Both of them were
in desperate straits, abandoned and isolated from any sort of earthly support.
She, in fact, was resigned to death by starvation. But she did as the prophet
of God directed her. Even in the face of death, she was willing to listen to
voice of God, and so she and her son were blessed with a miraculous source of
flour and oil.
The scribes were experts in the Law whose theological judgments
carried great influence and authority. Jesus did not condemn them en masse, for in the passage prior to today’s Gospel reading
he told a scribe, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mk. 12:34). Yet he
strongly criticized the conduct of many scribes, those who chose style over
substance. They were more concerned with looking good, getting attention, and
receiving honors than they were with the things of God and the plight of
Some of them “devoured the houses of widows,” likely a reference
to financial fleecing. Reliant on private donations, some scribes would say
prayers meant for human ears and not for God. Rather than pleading for the
widows (cf. Isa. 1:17), these scribes were taking advantage of them, something
condemned strongly by the Law and the prophets.
This sinful behavior, an injustice to the widows and a
denial of God’s commandments, is contrasted with the humility and trust of the
poor widow, who came to the Temple and “put in two small coins worth a few
cents.” Those coins were the smallest units of monetary currency, each worth
about 1/64 of a laborer’s daily wage. The monetary value was small, but it was
all that the widow possessed. She gave everything, “from her poverty … her
The widow’s physical poverty was real, and she had little or
no control over it. But her spiritual povertythat is, her humility and
devotion to Godwas also real, and it was the result of her will and her
choosing. She embodied the first of the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in
spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3).
“She had given not out of her surplus, but out of her
substance,” notes Dr. Mary Healy in her commentary on The Gospel of Mark
(Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, Baker, 2008), “Her gift meant that
she would have to rely on God even to provide her next meal. Such reckless
generosity parallels the self-emptying generosity of God himself, who did not
hold back from us even his beloved Son (Mk. 12:6).”
This sort of sacrificial giving and living is not, of
course, much in style. But serving God is not about style. It is about
(This "Opening the Word" column originally appeared in the November 8, 2009, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)