God seeks the improbable

  • October 31, 2012

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) Nov. 11 (1 Kings 17:10-16; Psalm 146; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44)

The widow of Zarephath was an unlikely candidate for a prophetic visitation. She was not an Israelite, and she was certainly not someone of stature or importance. The Old Testament is filled with accounts of God’s agents seeking out the improbable and questionable — that is how God works. God works with a very different agenda and value system than human beings.

Why did Elijah seek her out among so many in the land? He was likely searching for a generous and compassionate heart that was willing to do God’s will — never mind the external label. God is always at work in the world in places and ways that we cannot imagine. The request that Elijah made seemed unreasonable and a bit calloused at first — the land was gripped by famine and the widow and her family were on the verge of starvation. She didn’t refuse Elijah but informed him of her precarious situation. Elijah reassured her by telling her not to fear. This admonition is given often in the Bible from God’s representatives. Fear is a constricting sort of emotion that can stifle the spirit and stymie the many ways that God tries to help us. The prophet also made her a promise. If she would put aside this fear and hold back nothing, God would provide for the widow and her family even while the rest of the land was in famine. The widow’s generosity and trust enabled God’s miracle. We can ask ourselves how many miracles we would enable if we let go of fearful grasping and self-protection.

The author of Hebrews viewed the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as a turning point in the history of the world and the way in which humans relate to God. Christ in a sense transcended all religion as He entered into the very sanctuary of heaven rather than anything bearing the marks of human creation. In that sanctuary He continues to intercede on our behalf. His sacrifice was meant to be the culminating and final sacrifice — from that point on, humans should not associate blood and violence with the worship or nature of God. Unfortunately Christians have not appropriated this part of the message well as the past two millennia bear witness. God does not delight in the spilling of blood nor does God ask or condone violence on our part. As the prophets of Israel always insisted, only a humble, loving and just heart is an acceptable sacrifice, as well as the giving of self for the sake of others. As we shall see below, not everything that calls itself sacrifice is worthy of the name.

Exploiting the generosity and piety of widows and the poor is nothing exceptional or new. Shady and manipulative TV evangelists have been known to tell elderly or poor folks that God will bless them abundantly if they put their rent money or living expenses in the donation basket and there are instances of financial malfeasance in our own Church as well. There are always some who use religion for personal profit and ego enhancement. Human nature is our constant and rather dismaying companion. Jesus pointed out the widow who gave a very small amount to the temple as an example of true sacrifice, devotion and generosity. Again, a nameless woman without prestige, influence or status was singled out as a moral or spiritual example. She gave what she didn’t have and felt the bite and sting of the sacrifice but it was something she did with love and devotion.

People often give what they can afford to give without feeling the effects. This does not apply only to money but to time and energy too. Large donations often have strings attached and public recognition can be part of the payback. We can wonder how generous people would be if tax receipts were no longer issued or if their donation would require giving up something that they enjoy or cherish. The example of the two widows does not call us to be reckless or excessive in our generosity but to be willing to step out of our comfort zone, away from fear and into the abundance and joy of living in God and for others.