April 15, 2007
By Alan Dowd
God has always had a heart for the poorest and weakest among us. Consider the people He chose to call His own. Scripture reminds us that they were not wealthy, powerful or remarkable in any way. In fact, it seems the distinctions that separated Abraham’s descendants from other peoples were neediness and helplessness.
This vulnerability and weakness remained even after Abraham’s descendants became a nation: For generations, Israel was nothing more than a slave to Egypt. Even after the exodus, Israel was a rootless tribe of tribes. Yet God kept watch over what He called “my firstborn son.”
What was true for Israel was just as true for individuals. Recall God’s words to Samuel as he searched for the would-be king of Israel. “Man looks at the outward appearance,” God explained to the prophet, “but the Lord looks at the heart.” Thus, Samuel would reject the strongest of Jesse’s sons and choose the youngest one—the one who was left to tend the sheep.
What the world overlooked, God would exalt: David would be a king, a warrior, a poet and a man after God’s own heart. His children would share the same lineage as the Messiah; and his words would be on the Messiah’s lips as God finished the redemption of mankind.
It wouldn’t be the last time or the first that heaven exalted and blessed someone overlooked by humanity. Mark’s gospel, for instance, tells the story of a woman with a tiny offering and a huge faith. Her story speaks volumes about the vast difference between what is important to humanity and what matters for eternity.
The Mighty Mite
Mark tells us that Jesus stopped to watch the crowd put their money into the temple treasury. “Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins,worth only a fraction of a penny.”
Jesus then gathers His disciples together to point out what really matters to Him. “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others,” he declares, His face beaming with the pride of a father. “They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”
What an incredible expression of faith. It’s an example that even the most trusting and least selfish among us fail to follow. I don’t even come close. Indeed, I suspect that from God’s perspective I look more like the puffed-up and proud rich people, who strutted to the offering place and gave out of their excess, rather than the widow, who gave sacrificially and quietly, with an almost-painful humility.
When I give, after all, I want some credit. I make sure that the church treasurer and the IRS take notice of my generosity. When I give, it’s usually out of abundance. I make sure the bills are paid, the 401(k) and IRA are maxed, and the gas tank is full. And when I give, my name might even be trumpeted in some large public gathering or chiseled in stone.
Of course, when I give in this manner, as Jesus reminds me, I have received my reward in full.
The widow, on the other hand, gave all she had—a mite, a fraction of a penny, a rounding error. And the God of creation stopped everything to take notice. He even immortalized her in His autobiography. She’s still reaping the rewards in heaven—and still teaching us lessons in faith.
How foolish it is to think that God is impressed when wealthy people like me—and relative to the rest of the world most Americans fall into this category—share a morsel of their wealth. As God explained to the psalmist, “I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens, for every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills…the world is mine, and all that is in it.” As the widow reminds us, that includes our checkbooks.
Jesus’ followers wouldn’t have been surprised by the fact that He pulled them aside to call their attention to this widow’s act of charity—and neither should we. After all, the Law and the prophets are full of reminders of how God pays special attention to the widow. Indeed, His eyes are always on the widow. She is an archetype of all who are forgotten, abandoned, lonely, frightened, and uncertain, the weakest and frailest among us.
If you want to see fear and worry and loneliness, look into the eyes of a widow. She strains to do alone what she once did in partnership with her husband—or even more heartbreaking, what her husband once did on her behalf. Paying bills, maintaining a home, raising the kids, loving the grandkids, sitting down for morning coffee, going to the mailbox, lying down to find that un-dented pillow—the everyday stuff of life becomes a gauntlet of heartache.
Too heart-sick and weak to fight, too ordinary to win our attention, the widow is too often last in our society. But she’s at the very top of God’s priorities—and it’s always been this way.
In Exodus, the message is clear: “Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan.” Deuteronomy reminds us that God “defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow.”
In 1 Kings, God sends Elijah to help a widow—and to be helped by a widow. Upon arriving, Elijah asks her for bread and water, even though a drought has stricken the land. Her response underscores just how dire her situation is. “As surely as the Lord your God lives,” she answers, “I don't have any bread—only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it—and die.”
But Elijah, speaking for God, reassures her. “Don't be afraid. Go home and do as you have said. But first make a small cake of bread for me from what you have and bring it to me, and then make something for yourself and your son.” Despite her worry, she feeds Elijah—she puts him ahead of herself. Elijah then promises her that God will somehow keep her dwindling stocks of oil and flour full for the duration of the drought. And He does just that.
Later, when the widow’s son becomes ill and dies, Elijah revives him and returns him to the heartbroken woman. “Look,” the prophet exclaims, “your son is alive!”
Likewise, when a widow told Elisha that her husband’s creditors were coming to take her sons into slavery, the Lord was watching—and acting through His servant.
Elisha first asks the widow if she has anything of value. The answer is not much—a few ounces of oil—certainly nowhere near enough to fend off the loan sharks. But Elisha sees a solution. “Go around and ask all your neighbors for empty jars,” he explains. “Then go inside and shut the door behind you and your sons. Pour oil into all the jars, and as each is filled, put it to one side.”
The widow does just as Elisha directs, and the woman and her sons don’t run out of oil until they run out of jars. She has enough not only to pay off all the debts, but enough for her sons and her and to live on.
In an echo of Elijah and Elisha, Jesus also reached out to help a widow in distress. Luke tells the story of how Jesus responded when a funeral procession, led by a mourning woman, passed by. She had already lost her husband and now she was burying her only son. “When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, ‘Don’t cry.’”
Moved by her plight and by the empty tomorrow that awaited her, He raised the widow’s son, and as Luke beautifully puts it, “gave him back to his mother.”
I wonder if He caught a glimpse of His own mother in that widow’s tears. After all, as He hung on the cross, He asked John to take care of His mother, whose husband was gone, whose son was dying. She was frail and alone, too heart-sick to speak, too weak to help. But she would not be forgotten or abandoned.
Again, God’s eye was on the widow.
The widow is mighty in her weakness, strong in her utter vulnerability, first in God’s eyes precisely because she is last in humanity’s. If we are indeed the Body of Christ, then our eyes and hearts should be on her.