Summary: Why was the story of the widow's lepta so very important to the early Church, and to Christ?
32nd Sunday in Course 2012
Most of the stories the Holy Spirit shares with us in the Holy Gospel are stories of what Jesus did, or what he said. Only a few, like this story of the widow’s lepta, are about what he said regarding the actions of another. The actual incident couldn’t have taken more than a couple of seconds. Big shots were walking by the Temple treasury, ostentatiously depositing large sums of money for the support of the Jewish religion. A widow–obvious only because she was all by herself and poorly dressed–dropped in the two smallest copper coins in circulation. Then the procession of the rich and powerful continued, and the widow would have been lost like them in the mists of history, except that Jesus immortalized her trivial gift in one of His sermons. We could call it the “sermon on the amount.”
The incident was important enough to Jesus that He took some time to summon his disciples to gather around Him. And it was important enough to use his formula for teachings of the highest import: Amen I say to you. “this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44 For they all contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living.” After Jesus’s Resurrection and Pentecost, this story circulated mostly in the Gentile church, because only Mark and Luke record it in slightly different language. It became part of the good news taught throughout the Roman empire. And it raises a number of questions that we today, Catholics of the 21st century, would do well to consider.
Why did this widow put in all her money, hardly enough to buy a morsel of bread to eat? What drew the eye of Jesus to her action, and why did He find it so critical an example that he related it to all his disciples? Why did the Holy Spirit, acting through Mark and Luke, consider it such a vital lesson that we have it in the New Testament? And, most important of all, what action must we take in response? What is Christ calling us to do, we who hear about this anonymous and long-dead woman nineteen hundred and eighty three years later?
To help us understand an action that didn’t even raise the net income of the Temple by .01%, and why it was the most important donation of the year, perhaps even of all times, the Church today gives us clues. The psalm proclaims: “The LORD watches over the travelers, he upholds the widow and the fatherless; but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. The LORD will reign for ever, thy God, O Zion, to all generations. Praise the LORD!” The OT reading tells the story of the prophet Elijah, who pronounced the Word of God over a jar of oil and a container of ground up grain, and that same Word gave many months of food miraculously to the woman, her son, and the prophet. And the Letter to the Hebrews offers the ultimate hope: “And just as it is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.”
The widow’s response to her poverty was to give away the little bit she had left. She trusted in the Lord, who, as Scripture says, has such special care for the stranger, the widow and the orphan that injustice to them cries out to heaven for vengeance. The early Church knew that part of the Old Law and saw in Jesus’s words here and His actions throughout His life that widows must be cherished and protected. Widows took a special place in the first days of Christianity. They did much of the work and were cared for from the community’s assets. By doing this, they were doing for the poorest of Christian survivors what Jesus learned to do for His mother, whom we might consider the first Christian widow, Mary of Nazareth.
So this poor woman was living out in her own vocation last week’s command to love the Lord God with all her heart, soul, mind and strength. She somehow heard the voice of God bidding her to cast away every security and trust in Him alone, just as Mary had done when the angel asked her to become the mother of His only Son, Jesus. It was this uncompromising devotion to the Father, Christ’s Father, that drew the attention of Our Lord. It was her willingness to part from every human safety net, even her last two nothings of money, that made her the model for the early Church. Those early disciples said, “if she could do that, what could I not do? If her example caught the eye of the God of the universe, why can’t I do the little bit I am called to do?”