What Widows Have to Teach

Nov. 11, 2009 — -- Welcome to the Spirituality Page's "Weekly Inspiration" at ABCNews.com. Each week a new reflection on some aspect of spirituality and faith will be posted right here. The authors will be as varied as we are, from all of the religious traditions and faith denominations. It will be an interfaith and ecumenical site to enable our thought and conversation about the many aspects of spirituality and faith that touch our lives every day. We hope that it will be a valuable resource to you as you explore your own faith journey and interconnectedness with the world of Spirit.

Please feel free to send suggestions for topics and authors from whom you'd like to hear. You may do so at the Shout Out box for comments on the Spirituality webpage. We look forward to hearing from you and to exploring different avenues of faith together.

-- Father Edward L. Beck, C.P., editor of "Weekly Inspiration"

There are no more vulnerable groups in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures than widows. Writing in the days before welfare, insurance, or health care reform, the Biblical writers were keenly aware that, left without a man to provide for them, widows had little chance of survival. In a patriarchal society where men ruled and were the bread winners, widows were left to fend for themselves with little to assure that they could actually survive. And for this reason, they seem to be of particular concern for God- a God who is intent on them surviving. Two widow stories from the Scripture illustrate profound Biblical teaching and insight.

In the First Book of Kings (17:10-16) we have the prophet Elijah going to Zarephath. He encounters a widow there and asks her to bring him a small cupful of water and a piece of bread. This is the first oddity. Doesn't he know that the widow is the one in need? That she is the one who has lost everything. She is living with her son in the midst of a famine and has come down to her last meal. She tells Elijah that she has nothing, only a handful of flour left in her jar and a little oil in her jug. She was about to prepare the last meal for her and her son before they die. Men are all the same, she must have thought. But Elijah has a different plan. He tells her not to be afraid and to go and do as he says. And also to make him a little cake and bring it to him! He assures her that God says, "The jar of flour shall not go empty, nor the jug of oil run dry." She leaves and does as Elijah says and indeed what he says comes to pass. The jar of flour did not go empty and the jug of oil did not run dry. And not only does Elijah eat, but she and her son ate fully for another year.

An interesting dynamic is at play here. God comes to the widow through the prophet Elijah at her time of greatest need and vulnerability. She has no choice but to make a way for God, and when she does, God is there in abundance. The great songwriter Leonard Cohen says, "There are cracks in everything. That's how the light gets through." We tend to want to cover up the cracks, pretend they are not there. And yet, they can provide illumination in our darkness. When we are powerful and strong we tend to keep God at bay. When we are weak, we have no choice but to let God in. The paradox at play here is that abundance comes from scarcity. And in the world of spirit, there is no scarcity. When the widow gives what she does not have to give, she has an abundance that feeds her for one year. When you attach yourself to God who is all about self-giving, you, too, can give and never run out. We get more of God by giving God away. We find ourselves by losing ourselves. Faith increases by sharing it. Our being increases in the measure that we give it away. This is the Divine paradox.

Which brings us to our second Biblical widow. In the Gospel of Mark Jesus is teaching the crowds to beware of the scribes and Pharisees who like to go around in long robes and take the seats of honor in the synagogues and at banquets. They say lengthy prayers, but don't really pray. The rich among them put large sums of money in the treasury for all to see. And then comes along the widow. She puts in two small coins, worth only a few cents. And Jesus uses it as an instructive moment with his disciples. He tells them that the widow put in more than the wealthy because they contributed from their surplus, but she from her poverty, from all she had. The scribes and Pharisees are playing the classic hoarding game, not only with their money but with honor and titles. They are trying to find fulfillment in the externals, but will come up only more empty because they are looking to be filled in a place that assures bankruptcy. If they try to find completeness in things outside of themselves and God, they never will. But the widow who is devoid of the trappings of "God substitutes" will find deeper happiness and meaning because they will be discovered in a place that does not run dry.

Which brings us to us. These are not easy teachings to digest, never mind to live. We are creatures so immersed in the physical world, that the world of Spirit can seem a foreign one to us. We know our math and science. If I have two apples and give you one, then I have one less. I only have one apple. But paradoxically and counterintuitively, the opposite is true in the world of Spirit. If I give away, I wind up with more than what I started with. If I give away love, I have more love. Joy more joy. God, then more God. And some would say that translates even to the physical world. If I give away my money, I'll have more money. That is, after all, the principle of tithing.

The widows present the possibility that reality is more than surface appearance or circumstance. If you want to be counted among God's favored then you may have to be unfavorable to many who judge by conditions unimportant to the Source of All Being.

Step out in faith and make a cake when the flour is running dry. You may just find that it lasts for a very long time.

Father Edward L. Beck, C.P. is a Roman Catholic priest of the Passionist Community. He is the author of three books, "God Underneath," "Unlikely Ways Home" and "Soul Provider," all published by Doubleday. In addition to conducting retreats and workshops on spirituality nationally and internationally, Father Beck is a religion contributor for ABC NEWS. He hosts a weekly TV and Internet show for ABC called "Focus on Faith" with Chris Cuomo of "Good Morning America" and is also a commentator on religious and faith issues for various other media outlets including CNN and Fox Television. Father Beck is the executive producer and host of "The Sunday Mass," which airs nationally each week.