Let the Scriptures Speak
Women Who Loved Too Much?
“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.”
You could not find two more extreme examples of utter generosity than the widows of our first and third readings. Elijah asks the widow of Zarephath to give him the little cake she was about to share with her son before they die. Amazingly, she accedes to Elijah's request. And the jar of flour and the jug of oil continue to deliver a miraculous supply that sustains not only her and her child but also the drop-in prophet—for a whole year. And no figure is more familiar than the widow in the temple with her mite, so often evoked as an example in pastoral begging letters.
It is no accident that this Sunday's readings line up those two widows who gave their all with the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus in the selection from Hebrews. The reference to the unique sacrifice of Jesus goes down easily because we have become so familiar with that reality. But the presentation of those widows as examples does not go without critique these days.
Aware that Christian pastoral practice has all too readily made it the lot of women to knuckle under and bear their burdens as wives, mothers, and nuns, while men work out their salvation in grander ways (sustained by that female service), some contemporary commentators have sought to minimize the exemplary nature of these widow figures.
But let us not overlook the obvious: Jesus and the evangelists were there first with this critique of gender stereotyping. For, in today's Gospel, Jesus himself contrasts the utter generosity of the widow with the hypocrisy of the scribes who make a great show of their piety and “devour the houses of widows.” And Mark, for his part, highlights both the behavior of this widow and that of the woman who interrupted the supper at Simon the leper’s place in Bethany, who broke an alabaster jar and poured costly spikenard over Jesus’ head. The two episodes frame the end-time discourse of Mark 13. In the first case, Jesus calls what the woman gave holon ton bion autes (literally, “her whole life”). And, in the second case, Jesus says of her gesture that she has anticipated anointing his body for burial, and “wherever the gospel is proclaimed to the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her” (Mk 14:9).
These scenes occur in a gospel that teaches that “whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk 10:44-45). In that context, there can be no doubt that the lavish generosity of those women is indeed meant to be exemplary for all Christians, male and female.
Does that mean that we are not meant to be prudent and “love ourselves” so that we can better love our neighbor? Does that mean that we are not to live a balanced life, take care of our health, labor for just wages for working women, and put a little aside for retirement? I think not. But the utter outpouring of those widows should remind us that the movement of our lives is indeed to be a total gift to God and others, the kind of total gift intended by the promises expressed in the vows of marriage, religious life, and the focused commitment of so many single men and women.
At the risk of over-simplifying the truth involved in these narratives, allow me to share with you what occurred to me once when I was meditating on these women during a retreat. It came in the form of a country western refrain (think Garth Brooks):
Toss in the coppers.
Pour out the nard.
If you give all you've got.
Livin’ ain’t hard.
Dennis Hamm, SJ
**From Saint Louis University