In today’s Gospel, to get this last week of the liturgical year underway, we meet one of the heroines of the Gospel. We know the situation of widows in the ancient world. No laws of inheritance, no social security, no safety net at all, widows were at the mercy of those willing to offer assistance. Like “prostitutes and tax-collectors,” “widows and orphans” are conjoined in the Gospel, the latter as a kind of shorthand for the most vulnerable in our midst.
But the widow in today’s reading is not honored because she belongs to a category that elicits our compassion. She’s celebrated for what she does, for something that is so deeply expressive of Gospel teaching that it foreshadows the salvific action of Christ himself.
The significance of what she does hinges on seeing what makes it fundamentally different from all the others making contributions to the temple treasury. Jesus himself says it: they gave from their abundance, she from her poverty gave all that she had, her very livelihood. It’s a difference that makes what she does different in kind.
They are fulfilling an obligation, perhaps even beyond what is required. She performs a religious act, properly speaking. In the same way that Job’s response to his own dispossession, “Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb and naked I shall return. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away” gives expression to the perfect religious attitude, so too the widow’s willingness to surrender the last of her possessions is an affirmation of her complete dependence upon God.
Jesus wants to teach his disciples that in her extreme situation, the poor widow embodies the truth of our situation before God at all times. She can give all that she has because she trusts that all that she has comes from God in the first place, and the one to whom she is united in her poverty knows only how to give. Through her, Jesus is also teaching the disciples about himself.