Scripture Readings, Nov. 7, 2021

Nov. 7, 2021 – 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

1 Kings 17:10-16;

Psalm 146:7-10

Hebrews 9:24-28

Mark 12:38-44

The two widows who grace our Sunday readings this week set those readings in the context of what some refer to as the “quartet of the vulnerables” — the widow, the orphan, the immigrant and the poor — who are referred to again and again in the Old Testament as ones for whom the People of God must provide special care, making sure they are not exploited precisely because of their vulnerable circumstances. (Zechariah 7:9-10 is a good example.) And yet, in biblically “woke” fashion, these two widows are no helpless pushovers. Instead, they put everyone to shame, including perhaps ourselves, in their carrying out true righteousness with total trust in God.

“Justice” and “righteousness” are loaded words in our day and age. In the Bible, they are companion words, and to understand one is to understand the other. So, righteousness, or “tzedeka” in Hebrew, is the ethical standard of right relationships. It is primarily something interpersonal rather than private. To do justice, or “mishpat” in Hebrew, is to carry out actions that bring about that ethical standard in the world. We catch something of the sense of the relationship between the two when we say in English, “You’ve done right by me.”

There are two ways this mishpat or justice is brought about rightly in the Bible. The first is with retributive justice, which in some way rectifies or makes straight a broken relationship. This is the kind of justice that happens in a courtroom, or an apology letter, where wrongdoers are punished or chastened by some standard, and some form of recompense is established to make right a wrong that was done. The second is with restorative justice, which proactively lends an eye to the vulnerable in society and seeks to address their particular needs so that they too may flourish in the land. We might think of this as mercy or charity, but the Old Testament calls it justice, and it is, in fact, the primary way the word is used. For the People of God to call themselves just, they cannot turn a blind eye to the needs of the weak in their midst.

Deuteronomy 24:19-22 provides a great example of what this kind of righteous upholding of justice looks like practically: “When you reap the harvest in your field and overlook a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; let it be for the resident alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord, your God, may bless you in all your undertakings. When you knock down the fruit of your olive trees, you shall not go over the branches a second time; let what remains be for the resident alien, the orphan, and the widow. … For remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt; that is why I command you to do this.” In other words, remember that you were, and potentially will be again, just as vulnerable as those who are presently experiencing vulnerability, and so go out of your way to proactively provide for them, treating them with the dignity they have as made in the image of God.

All of this is why the Lord has no time for the scribes in this week’s Gospel, who go around trying to look holy and honorable, but flout true righteousness by “devouring the houses of widows” (Mark 12:40) — exploiting them in whatever ways they were: cheating, freeloading, mismanaging, misrepresenting, manipulating, overcharging — the possibilities are endless. But to prey upon the vulnerable is to seek “very severe condemnation” from the Lord. (Mark 12:40)

Into that happy conversation walks a “poor widow,” perhaps a very one whom the scribes have exploited out of house and home, who comes right into the Temple treasury and gives her now famous offering of the two coins that amount to her whole livelihood. Her action is nothing short of stunning. Defying the pitiless but in fact pitiable scribes who, if they have not exploited her, have certainly exploited one or two of her friends in the widow community, she stakes her trust in the living God, who “sustains the fatherless and the widow, but the way of the wicked he thwarts.” (Psalm 146:9) What the scribes actively sabotaged, and the other faithful only saw to from their surplus, this woman does with her last pennies to the point where it hurt.

It was as the widow of Zarephath did when Elijah the prophet arrived as a sojourner (immigrant, resident alien) in her town. She too was quite literally on her last straw, gathering sticks to prepare a last meal for her son and herself. When the prophet requested a meal from her — a jaw-dropping request on its face — this woman’s faith knew instinctively that it was a test. She provided for the sojourner not only from her surplus but from her very livelihood, staking her claim on her belief in the righteousness (tzedeka) of God, who sees to it that justice (mishpat) is done for the vulnerable. Sure enough, the Lord provided for her, for her son, and for the prophet for a year on end.

“The jar of flour did not go empty, nor the jug of oil run dry.” (1 Kings 17:16) It is for us a beautiful image of the sacramental life of the Church — God’s provision for his holy people in every age, by which he nourishes, heals, and sustains us without fail with holy oil and Bread from Heaven that never run dry. God’s provision for each of his children, great and small, is dependable. We can trust it with our lives. And so we are freed to provide for those around us, not only from our surplus, but even to the giving of our whole lives as he did.