Two widows are featured in this week’s readings, the widow from Zarephath who was called upon to feed Elijah, out of her poverty, and the widow whom Jesus spotted in the Temple, giving all she had to the Temple treasury, despite her poverty. As widows they were among the most economically vulnerable in 1st century Mediterranean culture. This is why in both the First and Second Testaments, G_d commands the people to take care of the widows.
But the widow in the Temple was clearly not being taken care of, she was being taken advantage of. The priests were “devouring widow’s houses” with the Temple taxes. The widow’s faith despite this exploitation is commendable. It is so because she is giving out of her poverty, while the wealthy are merely giving a small portion of their accumulated wealth. She displays an attitude of fearlessness. She gives away the last of her wealth, choosing to be dependent upon G_d in a way that the Temple priests have long since forgotten how to do.
You wonder why G_d would choose an impoverished widow to feed Elijah. There must have been wealthier people in Zaraphath who could have taken him in. The implication is that in order for the vessel to be filled with grace, it’s got to be empty in the first place. The emptier the vessel the more it can be filled up. The impoverished widow is chosen for the job because it makes it perfectly clear that the replenishing of the flour and oil is pure grace.
And that’s the thing about affluence. The more we have the more difficult it is to see our lives as vessels through which the Abundant Grace of Source flows through. Wealth creates the illusion that our good fortune is the result of our cleverness, ingenuity, or hard work. This forms the foundation of meritocracy. We get what we deserve, and what we get we have personally generated. (And by extension, the poor are getting what they deserve). The more we accumulate the less and less we feel our deep connection to Earth. We simply forget that everything we have as humans on this planet comes from Earth. We stop being grateful. At this point, we’re officially on the take.
The spiritual danger of financial wealth is that it can perpetuate the illusion of self-sufficiency. We forget that literally everything we have has come to us as pure gift. Our bodies are the gift of billions of years of evolutionary grace. Our minds are beautiful slivers of a pervasive cosmic consciousness, concentrated amalgams of all the intelligence that preceded us, from mineral, to plant, to human consciousness.
This is why Jesus insisted that if you intended to follow him, you had to give away all your wealth. The moment you give it away, the illusion of self-sufficiency goes with it. This gift of remembering our radical dependency on earth, other human beings, and on the animating intelligence that is making it all possible is the “pearl of great price”. It is a regaining of the wisdom of vulnerability. It’s the return to dependence upon the village, the soil, and each other’s care. Individualism is shattered, but the not the sovereignty of the individual-in-community or the community-in-individuals.
The spirituality of the 21st century citizen of the developed world needs to become an empty vessel spirituality, an emptying of self again and again, so that we can witness the grace of being filled, which issues in gratitude, which means we take nothing for granted. Which means we stop being on the take and we begin to consciously see our life as an offering. This is spiritual poverty, the grace of being able to experience with the widow of Zarapheth her jars of meal and oil being replenished daily. “Give us this day, our daily bread”.
I don’t believe that this requires physical poverty, but rather what Duane Elgin calls “voluntary simplicity“.
1 Kings 17:8-16
17:8 Then the word of the LORD came to him, saying,
17:9 “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.”
17:10 So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.”
17:11 As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.”
17:12 But she said, “As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.”
17:13 Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son.
17:14 For thus says the LORD the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the LORD sends rain on the earth.”
17:15 She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days.
17:16 The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the LORD that he spoke by Elijah.
12:38 As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces,
12:39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!
12:40 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
12:41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums.
12:42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.
12:43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.
12:44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”