The Message of Today’s Gospel: ‘Jesus Knows’

SCRIPTURES & ART: Two widows, eight centuries apart, offer a lesson in Divine Providence.

Gustave Doré, “The Widow’s Mite,” 1870
Gustave Doré, “The Widow’s Mite,” 1870 (photo: Public Domain)

Today’s readings are about widows. Widows who rely on God’s Providential care. The widow of Zarephath and the widow with her mite.

“Abusing the widow and the orphan” was, in Catholic theology, among the four sins crying to heaven for vengeance (along with murder, sodomy and cheating the worker of his wages). Without a husband or father to protect them, widows and orphans were and usually are very vulnerable people. While abusing anybody is sinful, exploiting those who are especially weak and vulnerable displays a particular moral turpitude.

Neither the widow of Zarephath nor the widow with her mite has anybody to rely on except God. And God gives his blessing.


The Widow of Zarephath

The Polish retreat master Stanisław Biel has written a number of books on the major characters of the Old Testament, including Elijah. He puts today’s First Reading in context.

Israel was undergoing a famine, a famine Elijah called forth at God’s command because King Ahab has allowed his foreign wife, Jezebel, to introduce the worship of pagan gods among the Chosen People. Elijah opposed the betrayal of Israel’s identity by pagan cults, but — as usual — the Jewish royal house is not interested in listening to the prophets.

First, God took care of Elijah by driving him into the wilderness where ravens fed him, a challenge to his faith because ravens are unclean birds (Leviticus 11:15). Then God tells Elijah to rely on his Providence by going to a foreign land — a pagan land, the land where Jezebel came from, a strange place to him — and go up to some unknown widow who is supposed to care for him. A pagan, foreign, poor woman! A widow! (P.S. Yahweh didn’t send a letter of introduction.)

It’s a test of faith for Elijah as he encounters a woman at her last straw — literally looking for straw and sticks to make a last meal for herself and her son. But God provides.


The Widow in the Temple

The same is true of the woman in the Temple. Jesus observes people donating money to the Temple. Any Jew would be proud to be invested in this center of worship for Yahweh. The affluent were making large donations, but “out of their surplus.” In the middle of the crowd, a widow comes along and slips the equivalent of a few pennies into the collection. Then she probably vanished into the throng.

Most people probably didn’t notice the widow, much less her contribution. Jesus did. Not only that, but he uses it as a teaching moment for his disciples.

We can draw different lessons from today’s Gospel. That God sees all things: “your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:4). That God cares for the poor. That God wants us to be generous in our charity. The Fathers of the Church often commented that giving out of one’s excess was a recognition of our legitimate dues towards our brothers and sisters.


A Lesson on Divine Providence

What I want to focus on is the reliance on divine Providence of both widows. Human standards of “prudence” would tell the widow to save her pennies against a rainy day and tell the prophet to find somebody else to bake him a cake. Neither did. “And they were not without their reward” (see Mark 9:41).

How often does human “prudence” inhibit our reliance on Divine Providence? Let me suggest one particular way in our culture: our flight from parenthood.

How many people somehow believe that God is going to ruin them through the gift of a new life? How often does a contraceptive culture measure the value of a new life against some project, some goal, some object? A car? A house? A vacation?

Sure, children will demand sacrifice. But do we really believe that “the Lord and Giver of Life” will abandon us if we accept his gifts? Is our sense of God’s Providence so attenuated, so shriveled up, that we don’t trust God? Or — perhaps we don’t want to face this question — do we really believe in God and his Providence when we come face-to-face with the kind of life-changing vocation that parenthood — being a co-creator with God — demands? When that rubber meets the road? Or do we really prefer our assets to offering our mites?


Artistic Depictions

Several artists have depicted today’s Gospel scene in their works. Traditional artists include James Tissot. The scene also seems to be popular with contemporary artists, e.g., Louis Glanzman, James Christensen and Howard Lyon.

I’ll admit I have an issue with how the contemporary artists display the scene. They tend to depict the widow face on, looking or almost looking at the viewer, with their few coppers somewhere in the scene, sometimes even on display in their hands.

From Mark’s description of the event, the widow is practically invisible. Nobody notices her but Jesus. He has to point her out to the Apostles.

So if the artists are showing us the widow face on, who is the viewer? Us? I suspect, like the crowds in the Temple, we’d probably not notice her. God? Well, should religious art be depicting scenes from God’s vantage point?

I have the same issue with that as I do with hymns that have humans singing God’s Words in hymns, especially in the first person (e.g., “Be Not Afraid”) — it ain’t your part. (Notice also that in these contemporary depictions — except Lyon’s — Jesus is not explicitly visible? That’s my other issue: while we seem to be looking through divine eyes, secular eyes illiterate of the Bible look at these depictions and see what? A lady with some money?)


Gustave Doré’s Illustration

My illustration of this scene is a very traditional one, an illustration by Gustave Doré. Doré was a 19th-century French illustrator and wood-engraver, whose biblical works once had a broad following. In 1866, he produced a two-volume set of illustrations for the Vulgate (Latin) Bible, which were a huge success and have been frequently reproduced. If you look at Catholic books from the 19th and even first half of the 20th century, you are likely to encounter Gustave Doré.

We forget that book illustration was a very active profession, especially in the second half of the 19th century. In America, for example, N.C. Wyeth began that family’s career in the artistic world as a famous book illustrator. In a world without television or other electronic screens, book publishers took pride in the craftsmanship of their products. The best publishers not only sought good stories, but they looked for good illustrators and skillful binders that made their products a pleasure to read, look at, hold, display and own.

Doré’s widow is very discreet about her modest yet generous contribution. Her left hand hardly knows what her right hand is doing (cf. Matthew 6:3). She makes her deposit alone, head done, off to the side, with none of the fanfare Jesus warns about. One can imagine her quickly scurrying off. One affluent man (in much of the world, fat was associated with being rich enough to eat, and the man directly behind her is corpulent) notices her, but he probably notices her (like “when is she going get on her way?”) and not her donation, something suggested by the air of impatience of the second man behind him.

The one person who does notice what she is doing — Jesus — stands at a discreet distance. He has apparently already signaled the event to his Apostles, as several are looking her way and Jesus’ right hand discreetly points her out. That Jesus is behind and above her also suggests his Divinity: God knows from on high.

When I was a student in New York, I often went home to New Jersey via the Port Authority Bus Terminal. In the early 1980s, Times Square was a seedy collection of drugs, sex parlors and prostitution.

There was an office building opposite Port Authority and, in one window, the tenant had fixed a red neon sign. As buses wound their way down to the Lincoln Tunnel, that window was visible. In the middle of the night was a glowing profession of faith: “Jesus Knows.” Short of the Last Day, we’ll never know how many people that 10-letter sign burning in the night saved or called back from sin. But it’s the message of today’s Gospel and the message of Providence: “Jesus knows.”