The first reading for today’s Mass, from the Book of Kings, records an encounter between Elijah and a poor widow. He asks her for some bread to eat, and when she tells him that she has nothing baked and only a handful of flour and a little oil, he tells her to use it to make him something to eat, promising her that God will provide for her. In one sense astonishingly, she does what he says, using her last bit of flour and oil to bake something for him. (And, in fact, it all happens as the prophet predicts – she and her son were able to eat for a year without the flour or oil running empty.)
The reading from Kings is paired with the story in Mark’s gospel that we often refer to as “the widow’s mite.” While many rich people come into the temple making large offerings, Jesus observes a poor widow who “came and put in two small coins worth a few cents.” Jesus points her out to his disciples to contrast her behavior with that of the rich people; while “they all contribute from their surplus wealth..she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.”
There are many possible lessons in the story of the widow in Mark’s Gospel. My friend Aidan focuses on Jesus’ criticism of the scribes who run the temple. Others focus on what this teaches about how generous we should be, giving until it “hurts”, so to speak. Both of those are surely important lessons from the Gospel.
But as I reflected on today’s readings in their entirety, the pairing of the widow in the Gospel with the widow in the passage from Kings speaks to me also of the tremendous trust both women had in God. One widow uses her meager supply of flour and oil to meet the demands of hospitality, trusting in Elijah’s God, whom Elijah promises will make sure she does not go hungry. The other takes all she has, offering it to God, making a total self-gift.
Do I have that level of trust in God? The ability to hold nothing back, secure in the promise of God’s love and protection? I’d like to say yes, but I wonder whether I would have been so quick to use the last of my flour and oil for the prophet.
We can all profitably ask ourselves, what do I hold back from God? Where is my trust weak? And what do I need from God to grow in trust?
Update: See my friend Aidan’s comment disagreeing with my reading of the Gospel passage here.