Every week, in our Liturgy of the Word, we meet new people. We see them interacting with one another, we listen to them speak, we admire them, pity them, are attracted to them or repulsed by them.
Some are close to God, some are far from him, some repent, others fall away.
There are prophets and prostitutes, rich young men and lepers, priests, widows and fishermen, tax collectors, kings, eunuchs, children, the demon-possessed, soldiers and paralytics. The Liturgy of the Word is a like a huge stage and each time we celebrate Mass one or other of these characters makes an appearance.
This week we have a prophet, two widows, some scribes, and Jesus himself.
- The Scribes
Jesus doesn't like the Scribes at all and warns us about them. Beware of the scribes...
These men, Jesus tells us, like to walk about in long robes. That is rather funny. Can you see them in your mind's eye? They are not going anywhere, really, they are just, well, walking about - taking their long robes for a walk. Like the man who says his wife is out taking her new hairdo for a walk.
These long robes would be the dress of the scribe which were not easy to get. Like a lawyer's wig or an academic's funny hat and gown, or a doctor's stethoscope, they are a status symbol. We all have them - even if it's only the new car.
Which brings us to a serious point in our reflection. Jesus does not just hold the scribes up for ridicule, he wants us to recognise ourselves in the scribes and perhaps make some necessary changes in our attitudes and behaviour.
To be perfectly honest, I can recognise a bit of the scribe in myself from time to time. Can you? No, not in me, in you!
Still, we can't blame ourselves for smiling at these men as we see them soak up the obsequious (flattering, fawning) greetings in the market squares and scampering for the front seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at banquets. Poor fellows - and how easily pleased! If there weren't such a sinister side to them we could almost like them but Jesus warns us they swallow the property of widows. It's not like they do really good business deals and get rich through their astuteness. No, these men swallow (what a greedy sounding thing to do) - they swallow up what belongs to poor defenceless widows! - all the time making a show of prayerful piety. No wonder Jesus says: Beware of the scribes... and of the severe judgment they will receive.
- The Prophet
Elijah the prophet is person of vastly different character. He is a wonderful man. When God speaks Elijah obeys. God tells him to go into the wilderness where the ravens will bring him food and where he can drink from the stream. Elijah goes at once and when the brook dries up God sends him to Sidon where a widow will look after him. That's the widow he meets in today's First Reading.
Elijah is a marvellous character. He journeys the roads of his prophetic mission with all the confidence and trust and power of a man who walks only the paths of God's holy will. It is this intense obedience to God which gives him the moral authority to speak in God's name: Do not be afraid ... bring it to me.
- The Widows
This widow (and the one in the Gospel) is dirt poor. She has only a handful of meal (flour) and a little oil left and after that, nothing.
Note the utter simplicity of the scene. There are no 'long robes', no 'places of honour', no obsequious greetings, and no gold coins tumbling into the treasury - there is only a widow gathering sticks.
The prophet politely asks for a little water and a scrap of bread.
Please bring a little water in a vessel for me to drink ... Please bring me a scrap of bread in your hand ...
Does he realise he is asking her for all she has?
Like the scribes in the gospel, Elijah is about to swallow the property of this widow but with a huge difference. He knows that God will reward the poor woman for her kindness and work a miracle in her favour. In fact, although our short reading does not mention it, she and her son continue to live for a whole year on the flour in the jar and the oil in the jug.
The widow in the Gospel, in total obscurity and anonymity, gives all she has voluntarily - two small coins.
Jesus was watching. Jesus is always watching and we do well to remember it.
Jesus is so thrilled that he calls his disciples (that's us) onto the stage and teaches them the immensely important truth: ...this poor widow has put more in than all who have contributed to the treasury.
What an amazing thing this is! Once again, in the paradox of Christian discipleship, we discover what we really already know - God does not need money; he needs, he wants - us. And the lesson comes not from those entrusted with teaching it, it comes from a poor widow!
She did not give God money, she gave him herself, her present and her future.
Her song of praise was not the jingling of coins but a heartfelt, wordless hymn of trust. Alone in a dangerous world she divests herself of the last thing which stands between her and total dependence on the providence of God - a penny.
Jesus speaks of a severe judgment for the scribes and we could be forgiven for suspecting that among the celestial judges, humble and beautiful, will stand two widows.