Father Donald Senior, CP

Nov. 7: 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

The widow’s mite

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

Not long ago, I listened to a radio report about a test conducted to see how familiar people were with the meaning of proverbial phrases from the Bible and classic literature. The example that stands out in my memory is one person’s response when asked, “What is a widow’s mite?” 

The respondent pondered for a while and then offered, “some sort of flea or bug that gets into women’s hair?” No doubt they were a Bible school dropout.

In fact, we hear the story of the widow’s mite in this Sunday’s Gospel selection from Mark. This scene comes after Jesus arrived in Jerusalem. 

Previously, he had a series of confrontations with the religious leaders while teaching in the Temple area. This is the final round.  

Mark’s account contrasts Jesus’ warning about the conduct of the scribes with that of a “poor widow.” 

In each of the Gospels, Jesus’ condemnation of religious hypocrisy is strong and here is another example. He warns the crowds about the conduct of those who “go around in long robes and accept greetings in the marketplaces … and places of honor in synagogues and banquet halls.” At the same time, they piously recite “lengthy prayers” as a cover for the fact that they are “devouring the houses of widows.”

Immediately after this, Jesus sits down near the temple treasury where people placed their donations. Rich people were putting in some sizeable donations, but the poor widow put in “two small coins worth a few cents” (translated by the King James Bible as “the widow’s mite”).  Jesus alerts his disciples: “Amen I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.”

Note the subtle point here: The widow had two coins.  She could have kept one for her own needs but, instead, she gives both. In fact, the Greek text literally says not “her whole livelihood” but “her entire life” (“holon ton bion”). This woman reflects the spirit of Jesus himself, who in the fast-approaching days of his passion will give his entire life for the sake of others. She gives generously to the house of God as act of love and devotion.

The first reading from the First Book of Kings is also a classic text involving another generous widow. The great Elijah encounters a widow “gathering sticks” at the city entrance and asks her for some bread and water. She confesses she has nothing but “a handful of flour and a little oil in a jug.”

She was planning to prepare a hearth cake for her and her son, and then face starvation. Nevertheless, she is willing to share her meager rations with the prophet. In turn, she is promised, in another memorable biblical phrase, that God will ensure that “the jar of flour shall not go empty, nor the jug of oil run dry.”

These powerful readings remind us once again that feeding the hungry and caring for the vulnerable stand at the heart of our responsibility as followers of Jesus. But there is also a lesson to be found in Jesus’ strong critique of the religious leaders.

In his book reflecting on the impact of the pandemic, “Let us Dream,” Pope Francis speaks bluntly of those afflicted with what he calls “an isolated conscience.” These are people, often including clergy and religious leaders, who are closed up in their own narrow world, arrogantly considering others inferior to themselves. They are indifferent to the struggles and sufferings of others. Absorbed in the fine points of doctrine and critical of others’ failings, they are oblivious to Christ’s call to love others and care for them with compassion.

The pope goes on to say that the antidote to the isolated conscience is a good dose of humility. The church, he notes, should be “a school of conversion,” a church that “both needs mercy and should be an instrument of God’s mercy.” 

The widows in today’s Sunday’s readings illustrate precisely that.


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