'Jar of meal shall not be spent, jug of oil shall not be emptied ...'
This promise, made by God through Elijah the prophet to the widow at Zarephath, ensured her and her son's continuation of life, in the face of death.
When Elijah confronted the widow, she was on the verge of accepting her death and the death of her son, because of malnutrition. How many thousands, even millions, of people in our world face the same slow death because we live in a world suffering from inequality, greed and selfishness.
In his Encyclical letter Caritas in Veritate, Benedict XVI writes that 'the world's wealth is growing in absolute terms, but inequalities are on the increase...' and questions the 'scandal of glaring inequality' referred to by Pope Paul VI in Populorum Progressio (1967).
In the scripture readings for this Sunday we see a declaration from both the Old and New Testaments of God's social teaching, reflected in the teaching of the Church.
The common denominator between the story of Elijah above and the story in Mark's Gospel of Jesus watching people putting money into the Temple treasury is a widow - in both instances a 'poor' widow. In the Jewish tradition, widows and orphans were regarded as special people under the protection of the God who executes justice for them.
Jesus drew the attention of his disciples to the action of the poor widow who had put in 'more than all who have contributed to the treasury ... everything she possessed.' She had done just as Jesus had advised the rich young man to do, who had sought his advice on how to inherit eternal life earlier in Mark's Gospel, by giving everything she possessed.
The Pope expresses how this teaching should be put into practice in our own world where 'new elements of development of peoples today in many cases demand new solutions.'
The promise of freedom given by God through Moses to the people of Israel was immense. The covenant God made with his chosen people was nothing short of unbelievable (in human terms). A people who for generations had been enslaved were to be set free through God's power and promise - a promise of a land of 'milk and honey'.
To engage in the prospect of a world of plenty is something that most people greet with great enthusiasm. We enjoy the prospect of a 'milk and honey' existence, at least for ourselves if not for others.
'Jesus sat down opposite the Treasury and watched people putting money into the treasury;and many of the rich put in a great deal…' But it was the generosity of the poor widow that impressed him, and caused him to draw the attention of his disciples to this act of ultimate generosity.
How easy it can be for the world to be impressed by the 'generosity' of the rich. And how easy to overlook the sacrifices of the poor. Yet Jesus assures us that 'blessed are the poor in spirit', so why are we not more concerned! So much time and print-space is devoted to the rich; pointing the finger at those wealthy bankers who pick up huge bonuses and others in our celebrity-obsessed world, that we fail to discover the 'blessedness' of being poor. Poverty is not a sin; but it can be a crime if the world (which means us) ignores the plight of the poor.
The two widows in question had in common their willingness to give everything they had to help others; this total renunciation of self could be seen as an analogy with Christ's own total self-renunciation, as the sacrifice needed to save sinners.
Contrast with that his scathing condemnation of the Pharisees' hypocrisy of proclaiming to help the poor while 'swallowing the property of widows'.
Is there a familiar ring to this story?