Sunday’s gospel is composed of two connected stories: Jesus first launches a new attack against the scribes, and then describes the scene of the widow in the treasury of the Temple.
There is no need for much interpretation on the first part of the text. We only need to emphasize that the sin of the scribes described in the passage is the one sin about which Jesus was less patient. What is that sin? The sin of using religion for personal advancement, the sin of oppressing the poor in the name of religion, as explained in the saying that Jesus pronounces, “Devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext recite lengthy prayers.”
Widows were the poorest of the poor in Jesus’ society. In contrast with the behavior of the scribes, Jesus observes the attitude of the widow. Despite her poverty and despite the corruption of the Temple and its leaders, she fulfills the obligation to support it. The point Jesus makes is that she did not support it out of surplus – financial left-overs – but she gave everything she had, “her whole livelihood.” This story is a challenge to us and forces us to reflect on whether we also give from what is leftover—to our “temple” or, in general, to our practice of faith, including any other charity or any other effort to give to others instead of keeping for ourselves. I want to think this includes finances, and also our talent, and our time. Do we give out of what is left, or do we really give our best, financially and otherwise, to others? In the interaction between Elijah and the widow from Zarephath in the first reading, we receive the promise that once we give of ourselves truly, without fear, from our own livelihood, financially and otherwise, abundance will follow. Do we believe it?
Often, we read the gospel and we are tempted to think that Jesus could not really mean this or that. We take the teaching and we “adapt it” to our times and realities to make it more palatable. By doing that, we may not be totally listening to what Jesus says. Jesus praises the widow that gives everything. It is a clear-cut teaching, one that we should start by accepting without undermining it with the thinking that Jesus could not really mean that for me, for this age, for our situation. He did.
A quote from Steven Colbert, Catholic talk show host and comedian, came to mind: “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”