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Widows and Scribes, Substance and Style

A Scriptural Reflection on the Readings for Sunday, November 11, 2018

"The Widow's Mite" (Le denier de la veuve, 1886-94) by James Tissot []

• 1 Kngs 17:10-16
• Ps 146:7, 8-9, 9-10
• Heb 9:24-28
• Mk 12:38-44

“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 desires.

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 widows.

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 whole livelihood.”

The widow’s physical poverty was real, and she had little or no control over it. But her spiritual poverty—that is, her humility and devotion to God—was 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 substance.

(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the November 8, 2009, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1233 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.

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