Ordinary Time 32, Year B

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength, and your neighbor as yourself (Mk. 12:30-31)

Was the prophet Elijah somewhat embarrassed perhaps to ask the widow of Zarephath for help? He started out asking for only a cupful of water to drink. But then, noticing maybe the widow’s readiness to help since she left to get it, the prophet asked right away that she bring along some bread as well. In not asking for water and bread all at once in just one sentence, does not this betray Elijah’s attempt to size up the situation first? And was he not sizing up the situation perhaps because, among other things, he did not feel comfortable asking help from a widow?

A widow is supposed to be given help, rather than be asked for help. Such should be the case from the point of view at least of Hebrew Scriptures which mentions the widow extensively, though not the widower, almost always in the context of her need for help and protection. In commandment after commandment, the Israelites are reminded to defend the cause of the widow, not to wrong her, and let her eat of the fruit of the land as well and celebrate with joy before the Lord (Ex. 22:21-23; Dt. 10:17-19; 14:28-29; 16:10-14; 24:16-21; 26:12-13; 27:19; Job 24:21; 29:13; 31:16-18; Ps. 68:5; 146:9; Prov. 15:25; Is. 1:17, 23; 10:1-3; Jer. 7:5-7; 22:2-4; Ez. 22:6-8; Zech. 7:9-11; Mal. 3:4-6; cf. [1]).

And if the widow of Zarephath deserved to be helped because she was a widow, even more help was befitting her on account of her son, an orphan, who should be helped and defended just as much as the widow should be. Double reason would an Israelite have, then, to help this household in Zarephath. And triple would have been the reason, had the meeting between Elijah, on the one hand, and the widow of Zarephath and her son, on the other hand, had taken place inside the Jewish territory, because then the two would be aliens also deserving of help and fair treatment.

As the story goes, however, the widow lent a helping hand to someone who should have helped her out in the first place—although in the end, of course, the widow and her son benefited more, for “the jar of flour did not go empty, nor the jug of oil run dry,” and later the orphan rose from the dead through Elijah’s intercession. They refer to her, for sure, and likewise to the widow in today’s gospel reading, the words of John Paul II in his Rio de Janeiro speech of July 2, 1980 about the poor in spirit (Favela do Vidigal 2 [2]):

In fact, the poor, the poor in spirit are more merciful.
The hearts that are open to God are, for this very reason,
more open to human beings. They are willing to help
selflessly. Willing to share what they have. Willing
to receive an abandoned widow or orphan into their homes.
They always find an available place within the straits in
which they live. They also find always a little bit of food,
a piece of bread on their poor table. Poor but generous.
Poor, but magnanimous.

These open-handed poor constitute, no doubt, a great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us (cf. Heb. 12:1). They evoke the memory of him who, made poor, has offered himself once for all, so that our profound poverty may overflow in a wealth of generosity (2 Cor. 8). They challenge us to hear God speaking to us as we take note of their readiness to share the little they have, to spend mostly gladly and be spent for God’s and their neighbors’ sakes (cf. 2 Cor. 12, 15). These poor—as Father Robert P. Maloney, C.M., states in his book, The Way of Vincent de Paul—will preach to us eloquently if we allow them, and also, please allow me to add, if we are not embarrassed to ask for their help.