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The Mighty Power & Unwavering Faith of Two Biblical Widows

May 30, 2016
Widow Nain cropped
Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C - June 5, 2016
In today’s first reading from the Elijah cycle in I Kings, the great prophet of the Old Testament did not set out on his journey until he received his commission from God. It is essential to be in communication with God through listening to God’s Word before setting out on mission. Elijah was recognized publicly as having the Word of the Lord in his mouth, the one who deals with life and death in his own breath, prayer and body; the one who lives on the kindness of the poor and who knows the life of the fringe on the outside of society; the one who flees for fear of his life. Elijah, called the "troubler" or "disturber" of Israel by King Ahab, lives his life between raging passion and violence, between gentle tenderness and deep prayer.
In Sunday’s Old Testament narrative, Elijah is told to go to Zarephath (v.9), which is part of Sidon. That verse contains three commands: “arise,” “go,” and “stay.” The prophet will be tested with each of these commands through faith, trust, obedience, availability and commitment. When Elijah is told to “arise”, it is not only a physical movement from one place to another, but a spiritual one. For Elijah, following the Lord obediently is the result of his own spiritual reawakening.
Elijah & widow of ZarephathThe second command, “go to Zarephath” involves the idea of a journey, including risks, hardships and dangers. Elijah is sent to a specific place, Zarephath, which means "a smelting place, a place of testing." Zarephath was in the land of Sidon, which belonged to the wicked Jezebel.   Elijah is not going on retreat nor on some kind of exotic vacation!
The third command, "stay there" was a great challenge to his own commitment, trust and vision as a man of God who was simply seeking to serve the Lord and do the Lord’s will. Elijah's provision would come from a poor, destitute, depressed widow facing starvation in the pagan nation of the Sidonians, who represented the forces clearly opposed to Israel’s God. Elijah encounters a woman who would look after him, a person not living in a large house and sharing her excess with itinerant prophets, but rather one barely existing at the gate of the city, collecting a few sticks since she had no fuel at home to cook even a meager meal. This poor woman would give all she had to assist the prophet.
The God who commanded the ravens and provided for Elijah in the desert (I Kings 17:1-7), was the same God who had commanded the widow and would provide for the prophet through her. At Zarephath, the poor woman listened to Elijah's instruction and it was just as he had promised according to the Word of the Lord. She saw the power of God and the widow, her son and Elijah were all sustained.
Example of a poor widow’s generosity
What lessons can we learn from this passage about the remarkable widow and the devout, fiery prophet? The widow of Zarephath was challenged by the prophet Elijah to share what little she had, in spite of her desperate circumstances. Because of this poor woman’s generosity and goodness, and Elijah’s faithfulness, God strengthened the prophet’s faith and renewed his capacity for ministry. The Lord used the prophet to bring consolation and peace of mind and heart to the widow and her son.
Authentic ministry is always mutual: we set out to help others and we end up being helped and blessed by the very people we set out to help! The Lord will provide for us, beyond outward appearances of weakness, failure, fatigue, trepidation and fear. God always does far more than we can ever ask for or imagine!
This striking Old Testament story forces us to ask some serious questions of our own lives. How have I responded to the needs of those around us when we've felt that we’ve got little or nothing to give? Do we worry that there will not be enough for us if we give away our money or our time?
Elijah exhorted the widow with the words, "Do not be afraid." This same admonition is repeated in the Gospels and was also the refrain of St. John Paul II's long, fruitful, prophetic Petrine ministry: "Be not afraid!" How does fear affect our lives and keep us from obeying the spirit of the Lord? Do we cling to those things that cannot help us, forgetting to trust in the goodness of God?
The widow of Zarephath was generous with Elijah. She gave to the limit of her resources, and God rewarded both the widow and her son. Do we have that same radical faith and trust? Do we behave as if we are owners of our talents and resources or simply as if we are God's steward?
This reading causes us to make some firm resolves with our own lives. Let me suggest a few concrete actions based on this story from the First Book of Kings. It is important to consider our own willingness to be generous with both material goods and with our very being. Perhaps this week we can ask God for the grace to respond charitably to those who ask of us, whether it is a worthwhile charity or the neighbor, friend or colleague who simply needs to talk and to be heard. The well-to-do who put money in the treasury were never condemned by Jesus; he simply pointed out the nature of their contribution. They gave from their surplus, and thus it did not "cost" them as much to give. Do we have a surplus from which to contribute? If so, do we use this money in the best way possible?
How do we consider our charitable giving? Are we concerned with the poor, the sick, the homeless, refugees and those on the peripheries of society? Do we use our wealth to help create a culture of life? Or are we more interested in building up our personal security? Perhaps we can pray this week for wisdom and a spirit of generosity so that we will use our money to help further the kingdom of God.
The only son of another widow
Let’s consider another story of a biblical widow from the New Testament. Just prior to today’s Gospel story in Luke 7, Jesus' power was displayed for a Gentile whose servant was dying; in today’s episode of the grieving woman from Nain, it is displayed toward a widowed mother whose only son has already died. Jesus' power over death prepares for his reply to John's disciples in Luke 7:22: "the dead are raised." This resuscitation of the woman’s only son clearly alludes to the prophet Elijah's resurrection of the only son of a widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17:8-24 - today’s first reading ) and leads to the reaction of the crowd: "A great prophet has arisen in our midst" (Luke 7:16).
We cannot read this Gospel without thinking back to the prophet Elijah who is the memory, the echo of Jesus, the Gospel prophet who raises from the dead the only son of a poor, grieving widow. And because of this, the people recognize that Jesus is truly a prophet in word and deed. Most people are afraid of prophets because they disrupt our life and relationships, challenge us and expose our motives. What is this story all about if not God loving us and revealing himself to us in the distressing guise of the poor, the widowed, the orphaned of his day and of our day. This Gospel story of pathos teaches us what it means to give people back to each other as Elijah did to the widow in his day and Jesus did to this widow in Nain.
Prophecy calls all of us as the people of God to repentance, transformation, boldness, courage and faithfulness. It calls us to create a culture of encounter. What draws prophecy and compassion together and integrates them is the person of Jesus. He is the human Son of God standing both as the Word from all eternity and the Word spoken in this time and place. It is Jesus’ passion for obedience, for truth, and his compassion for sinners and the poor that pulls the two together and makes them whole and holy. The presence of the Spirit in Jesus and in all of us is what negotiates and translates the common ground between prophecy and compassion.
Our belief in the resurrection
If in Jesus’ resurrection we were dealing simply with the miracle of a resuscitated corpse, it would ultimately be of no concern to us. The miracle of a resuscitated corpse would indicate that Jesus’ resurrection was equivalent to the raising of the son of the widow of Nain (Lk 7:11–17), the daughter of Jairus (Mk 5:22–24, 35–43), and Lazarus (Jn 11:1–44). After a certain period of time, these individuals returned to their former lives and would then eventually experience a final death.
In the three cases of resurrection reported in the gospels, all the successive physical aspects of death are mentioned. Jesus raised the daughter of Jairus when she was still lying on her bed, He raised the son of the widow of Nain while he was being carried out in a coffin, and He raised Lazarus who was already buried and decomposing. Jesus's power over death is absolute. This applies just as much to different degrees of spiritual death as it does to different degrees of physical death, and the gospel accounts of resurrection indicate symbolically how Jesus restores life to sinners.
Jesus’ power to raise people from the dead is not dependent upon whether a person has just died, has been dead for days, or is already decomposing. In today’s Gospel, the only son of the widow is twice as traumatic for the woman because she is now childless as well as spouseless. In each of the three accounts of Jesus raising people to life (Jairus, Lazarus and the widow’s son), it is the compassion that Jesus felt for the sorrowing relatives which was the primary cause of the miracle. When Jesus has compassion on the widow, saying, "Do not weep," He is not asking her to cheer up. Instead, it is a foreshadowing of his power. He will remove the cause of her tears and simultaneously give His disciples a preview of God wiping away all tears.
The two processions of death and life 
Luke is the only one to record the raising of a widow's son. There were two processions that day in Nain. One was a funeral procession carrying the dead body of the young boy to the town cemetery. That procession was filled with despair, grief, sorrow and the helplessness and hopelessness of our human lot. The second procession, led by Jesus, was the procession of life en route to reverse humankind’s tragic journey to the grave. This procession offered hope, peace, salvation and eternal life to those who weep and mourn.
While the Gospel story of the widow’s son allows us to experience Jesus’ deep compassion, it cannot be ignored that the miracles of resurrection have another cause also: they demonstrate that Jesus has all power over life and death. The story reveals the unmistakable authority with which Jesus (by a sign) stopped the procession; then the solemn and directive of the words, "I say to you, arise"; and the fact that Luke, who in the first verses of the chapter 7 speaks simply of "Jesus", now uses the word "Lord", for this was an encounter in which the Lord of life confronted death and human grief. And Jesus’ power is awesome.
Resurrection is never an isolated, privatized hidden incident. Men and women of the resurrection motivate others to do something new. People of the Resurrection know how hard it is to come back from the dead. Resurrection gives meaning and joy in the midst of anguish, violence, grief and suffering. If we believe in the resurrection of Jesus, we beg to differ with the darkness and the night. We never accept situations the way they are. We become leaders of processions of life, ready to intersect with the many processions of death around us. We risk touching the dead and the outcasts – all those who sit in the shadows of death and exist on the fringes and peripheries of life. We repeat the words of Jesus: “Live again, love again, arise.” We restore grieving, suffering people to communities and circles of life and reconnect them with those from whom they have been separated.
[The readings for the Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time are: I Kings 17:8-9; 17-21a; 22-24; Galatians 1:11-19; and Luke 7:11-17.]
(Image: Jesus and the Widow of Nain by James Tissot)
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