As he neared the end of his earthly ministry, Jesus began to speak in apocalyptic terms about "the end of things". Our securities and where we place our trust will be challenged and tested under trial. Perhaps this is why he spent so much time teaching his disciples about the gracious love of the Father. His words always resonated with trust and hope. Today, we are once again reminded that our religious practice must flow from a sincere love of God and generous service to others..
It is important for us to understand the context of today’s reading. Just weeks before his death, Jesus has finally made his way to Jerusalem and is in the Temple preaching. Along the journey we have seen him teach the meaning of discipleship. We have witnessed the faith of a blind beggar and the lack of faith of a "rich" young man. We have heard the Lord say that loving God is inseparable from loving our neighbor. And we have watched as he explained that mere ritual and just “following the rules” is not enough – the external show of religion has now been supplanted by a gospel of grace.
Today’s readings contrast two very different groups of people – the scribes who were very prominent in religious life during Jesus’ time and the silent and barely-noticed widows.
The scribes mentioned in the Gospels were the professional scholars of their day in the interpretation of the Old Testament. The scribes of Jesus' day were self-appointed leaders of a superficial religion: superficial in that it emphasized only the external trappings of religion, and they had long since left the true purposes of the Word of God. Jesus condemns these kinds of religious leaders, those who are greedy and pretentious and who have forgotten the One who called them and the people they are called to serve. He tells those around him: “Beware of these folks! You can see for yourselves by the way they dress, how they want to be noticed, how self-centered they are and how self-important they claim to be. But they devour even the widows’ houses.”
He then singles out the widow. And if it weren't for Jesus' noticing, her gift would have been lost amid the great donations of the rich. But I don’t think the focus of today’s Gospel is meant simply to teach the value of sacrificial giving or to point out whose gift is greater in the eyes of God.
Unlike the widow from our first reading who gave Elijah from what little she had and then was rewarded for her generosity, we don't know what happened to the widow in today's gospel. Jesus points her out to his disciples and notes that she, "...from her poverty, had contributed all she had." But we never know if this particular person was later one of the victims of poverty who, in Jesus' time and our own, suffer and die in their want. Was she just one more of the anonymous poor of the world who pass on into obscurity and whose death is barely noticed?
The Lord here teaches against the crime of having no particular interest in the welfare of the individual, as opposed to having a great deal of interest in giving for one’s own gain. The rich would not miss what they gave, but the widow had given away her entire living. The sad part of today’s account is that both the scribes and the widow could have had eternal life had they simply put their money back into their pockets and embraced the Redeemer who was sitting a few steps away observing.
The real tragedy of life is always that Jesus is so near with the gift of life but people seek to buy or to work their way into heaven.
We hear this message again today and are reminded how God came to our need in the past. He continues to show concern for our present hungers and we who are nurtured and fed by our God are called to turn our attention to those who, like the widows in today's scriptures, attract Jesus' notice. We are to do as he did. We are to "observe" and tend to those who need our attention, who are not the notables of our world and who do not have the prestige and status that normally attracts the world's eye and favor.
True Christianity gives – but it gives from the principal of grace; lovingly, not legally; freely, not through coercion; not to gain favor but to impart it, having received so much ourselves from the Lord. Jesus gave willingly, lovingly, and generously. Dare we do less?