We are all vulnerable

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A homeless person in Birmingham, Alabama, eats breakfast during the distribution of food and clothes April 18, 2020. (CNS/Reuters/Carlos Barria)

A homeless person in Birmingham, Alabama, eats breakfast during the distribution of food and clothes April 18, 2020. (CNS/Reuters/Carlos Barria)

My mom used to fight back tears every time she heard of young men going off to war. Their situation recalled her experience of being the mother of a four-month-old baby who watched her uniformed husband board a hospital ship during World War II. The sight of young soldiers kept alive her memories of the long years she spent waiting for my dad’s return. Although she was never an anti-war activist, her sympathetic imagination led her to mourn the dead and wounded of all sides as if they were her own.

In an article entitled, “Why Are the Poor More Generous?” psychoanalyst Ken Eisold explains that people are naturally more compassionate to those with whom they can identify. Thus, the poor understand and can sympathize more with their companions in struggle than can the better-off who have not known the same level of need or desperation. The explanation might be deepened if we consider the idea that the generous response of the poor implies an understanding of our shared vulnerability.

November 7, 2021

1 Kings 17:10-16
Psalm 146
Hebrews 9:24-28
Mark 12:38-44 or 12:41-44

We see this dynamic played out in the story of the widow who helps Elijah. When the widow meets him, Elijah is a refugee fleeing both a drought and political danger. At first blush, it seems odd that he would ask help from one of the most helpless people around, but God had informed him that there was a widow prepared to assist him. Thus, Elijah asked her for water and then boldly added a bite of bread to his order.

That was the woman’s cue to let him know how much he was asking. Obviously, as a man — even though a foreigner — he had greater survival potential than she. But, rather than refuse him, she exposed the absolute bleakness of her situation: she was preparing the last meal she expected that she and her son would eat.

The woman’s combined desperation and generosity were the cue for Elijah’s prophetic announcement: “The jar of flour shall not go empty, nor the jug of oil run dry.” Elijah’s promise was that the woman had exercised her power to create a world of solidarity in which the hungry would be fed and the widow and orphan protected.

Did Elijah find a job and help her? Did the flour and oil miraculously reproduce itself? Did neighbors get in on the act? The author doesn’t tell us — perhaps so that we could wonder about all the possibilities. What is clear is that the widow was willing to share with a stranger in need and that as a result, they all survived.

The nameless widow of Zarephath was really nothing like the widow of today’s Gospel. The first freely offered what she had to a fellow person in need while, according to Jesus, the second was duped by slick pretenders skilled at bilking the innocent. Whereas Elijah invited his impoverished hostess into a shared experience of divine providence, the status-seeking religious leaders sought nothing but their own fame and fortune.

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