"Widow's Mite, Society's Sin"by Fr. Walter Burghardt, S. J.
My gospel story today is poignantly brief. Four verses from Luke 21. An Israelite widow puts her last two copper coins in the temple’s treasury. I focus on two related questions. What did the story mean then, what might it be saying to us now? What sort of life did this widow live in biblical days? What sort of symbol might this widow be for you and me today?
First then, the widow of our Gospel. We tend to focus on what the widow did but to grasp what she gave, we have to understand who the widow was. She was dependent, had to dress in a special way, could not inherit from her husband. If she had no children she returned to her father’s house. If she had no man to defend her rights she was an obvious victim for a predator, at the mercy of dishonest judges. Oh yes, God’s law declared you shall not abuse any widow or orphan. And Moses could proclaim: cursed be anyone who deprives the widow of justice.
And yet in sheer facts, so general a law was a lifeless ideal and the curse on injustice hardly deterred the scheming predator. The pleading of the prophets -- Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zechariah -- reveal a widow shamefully oppressed. So oppressed that Malachi has to make Yahweh the protector of widows. Remember Naomi in the book of Ruth? She had lost not only her husband but her sons. Too old to have a husband, she found life so bitter. Even food was such a problem that she said to her daughters-in-law, "The hand of the Lord has turned against me." When she returned to Bethlehem and the women of Bethlehem asked, "Is this Naomi?" She replied, "Call me no longer Naomi, that is pleasant; call me Mara, that is bitter. For the Lord has dealt bitterly with me. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty."
And here now is the widow of Luke’s gospel. Not bitter like Naomi, but just as poor. For when she drops into the treasury two small copper coins, two of the smallest coins then in use in Palestine, Jesus tells us, "Out of her poverty she has dropped in all she had to live on." Now if that were the whole story it would be enough, but there is more.
Scripture scholars insist that Jesus is not heaping praise on the widow, he is lamenting the tragedy of the day. What tragedy? Recall the episode just before this. Jesus had condemned the scribes who devour what little estates widows had left. Perhaps they mismanaged the widows’ property, perhaps they took the houses as pledges for debts, perhaps they spurned on widows’ hospitality. In any case, the tragedy of the day was this: this widow had been taught and encouraged by religious leaders to donate as she does and Jesus condemns the value system that motivates her action. Jesus was displeased over what the scribes were doing to widows’ estates. No more pleased is he when he sees a poverty stricken woman persuaded by the hierarchy of her religion to contribute to the treasury her last penny. In a word, Jesus is condemning a structure of sin, a social injustice.
Now turn to my second question. What sort of symbol might the widow of today’s gospel be for you and me today? Here I commend to you an expression heard repeatedly across Latin America: "the poor evangelize us." So many of the poor, young and aged, married and widowed, AIDS afflicted and homeless, Hispanics and African-Americans, so many of the poor have helped the churches discover what a 1979 conference of Latin American bishops called the "evangelizing potential of the poor".
But how do the poor actualize that potential? How do they evangelize the churches? Especially those of us who are not poor. They challenge us. How? By their overwhelming numbers, their ever worsening misery, their Christ-like endurance under persecution and domination, their underlying gospel goodness, their simplicity and solidarity, their openness to God and what God mysteriously permits. In these and so many other ways the poor have in some measure turned the churches around, have compelled untold numbers of us to look more honestly within ourselves, have even stimulated profound conversion.
Theologian John Sabrino has expressed it poignantly: when the church has taken the poor seriously, it is then that it has become truly apostolic. The poor initiate the process of evangelization. When the church goes out to them in mission the paradoxical result is they, the poor, evangelize the church. Very simply, the poor are not just recipients of our ministry, they are our teachers, our educators, if we have eyes to see, if we have ears to hear.
An example close to our daily experience takes us to the elderly who surround us. The elderly poor, the elderly lonely, the elderly ailing, the elderly in nursing homes. Henri Nouwen penetrated into the heart of the matter of how the elderly evangelize us. Teach the teacher, preach to the preacher. He wrote, "Our first question is not how to go out and help the elderly, but how to allow the elderly to enter into the center of our own lives. How to create a space where they can be heard, listened to from within, with careful attention. Quite often our concern to preach, teach, cure, prevents us from perceiving and receiving what those we care for have to offer." Thus, he says, "Care for the elderly means first of all to make ourselves available to the experience of becoming old. Only he who has recognized the relativity of his own life can bring a smile to the face of a man who feels the closeness of death. In that sense caring is first a way to our own aging self, where we can find the healing powers for all those who share in the human condition."
Precisely here, our gospel widow returns to us. She evangelizes us, but for us and our Christian living she is not in the first instance a striking example of a poor, believing woman who gives her last penny to God in the collection basket. Go thou and do likewise.
Her story is God’s quiet but passionate rebuke to an unjust social system. A sinful structure that leaves her with only two copper coins and suggests that she surrender even these, all she had to live on. Now is sinful structures, situations of sin, leave you cold or uneasy, take heart. Pope John Paul did not hesitate to speak this way. Listen to him: "A world which is divided into blocks, sustained by rigid ideologies, in which instead of interdependence and solidarity, different forms of imperialism hold sway, can only be a world subject to structures of sin." But John Paul has also insisted that a situation, a structure, an institution, society itself is not in itself the subject of moral acts. A situation cannot be, in itself, good or bad. Such structures, such situations stem from what he called the accumulation, the concentration of many personal sins. Men and women who cause, support, exploit evil, who don’t eliminate or limit evil when they can, who take refuge in excuse -- "It’s impossible to change the world" -- stem, too, from nations and blocks, from decisions inspired only by economics or politics, but are real forms of idolatry, of money, ideology, class, technology. And so many of us say with Judas, "Surely not I, Master."
So much from four verses in Luke. Our gospel widow never knew she was taking us this far. She never suspected that she and her innumerable sisters poor could evangelize us, could lead us to confront the personal sins within unjust social structures. Our own sins included. But she does, indeed she does.