What are we to make of these two nameless widows? Are they perhaps just a pair of batty old ladies, heedless of the disaster looming over them, and conned out of their few savings by the sort of men whom Jesus condemns in the Gospel for wolfing down widows' properties?
That's roughly what they look like from the perspective of a modern cynic. One puts her last two coins, her whole living, into the Temple treasury at Jerusalem; the other seemingly hastens her own death and that of her son by sharing what little food remains with an unknown visitor to Sidon. You have to ask not only what makes for such reckless generosity, but what justifies it. How can it ever be right to be so prodigal, to be so spendthrift?
Or are these two actually canny gamblers, a shrewder pair by far than their sceptical critics, staking their all on their only hope, the One God, the source of every good gift? They certainly know at one level exactly what they are doing. The less you have, the more nearly you know its precise value. The widow of Sidon makes plain what fate she sees waiting for her at the bottom of meal jar.
Their extraordinary, self-denying, generosity is rooted in a recognition of God's prodigality, God's generosity first towards Israel. Their gifts are grounded in his gift of life in his image and likeness, of the covenant, and the protection extended to the poor through the Mosaic Law and the cry of the prophets. If to some extent they are gamblers, staking everything on the final card, it is because they are first lovers, in love with the God who has graced their lives thus far, and this is not a dicey game of chance, but a journey in faith.
In today's Gospel Jesus condemns the long prayers made by those who fancy themselves as holy men; such prayers will only gain them God's punishment. They thus fail to work as prayers at all. The real prayer is in what these faithful women do, what they spend of themselves.
What the widows could not know, of course, is that the divine prodigality has now been made manifest in Christ, his incarnation and passion, for [quote]He emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.
Jesus comments on the widow's gift at the Temple knowing that he himself will shortly make his life an offering to the Father, making of death upon the cross a self-sacrifice. So if either widow is at all foolish, their folly is Christlike. Their action makes only as much sense as Christ's gift of his all, his life, makes sense.
Perhaps we should really say that Christ's death gives sense to all our self-sacrifice, our many deaths to self in love of God and neighbour. When Jesus observes the widow by the Temple treasury, we should not imagine that he is unmoved, or that his death merely happens to take the shape of her own generosity. His offering is an act in loving solidarity with hers. It is even occasioned by hers, though not by hers alone. It is God's redemptive response to all our reckless loves, though that response does not end in the death of Christ, but in his glorious resurrection and ascension.
If the widow of Sidon soon discovers that God miraculously rewards her generosity towards his prophet, this is also a sign which looks forward to the redemptive generosity of God pouring forth upon humanity in the Pentecostal gifts of the Risen Christ.
Christ in turn then invites us into a new generosity with the gifts we have received through the Holy Spirit, who has incorporated us into the Body of Christ, the Church.
Admittedly, it's not always easy. It is hard to learn that we and our gifts are not in competition. Your beauty, whether that is physical or the astounding beauty of virtue, is a gift for me to delight in and respect, not something I can only envy, nor something I must somehow deny if my own gifts are to count for anything, nor something to plunder and consume. The more important gifts need to be recognised in order to grow. They are usually the fruit of others' work as well as of our own, in the sense that gifts like virtues need to be practised, perfected, in relationship and dialogue with friends, spouses, strangers, and enemies. And of course, first and foremost, we have to accept the gifts we've been given as gifts at all.
There is a temptation to privatise gifts which are meant to be shared. The Gospel is also witness to a more insidious form of temptation, to make religion the means to our own self-aggrandisement. There is clearly a warning here for all of us who have been ordained, all members of the Church's hierarchy. If mutual service is subverted to become a power game, an ego-trip, we shall face God's justice. Let's learn from the widows while we still can.