Opening the Word: Substance over style

“Substance over style.” This phrase is a good reminder that a culture filled with empty rhetoric, flashing lights, endless entertainment and the promise of bigger and better cannot satisfy our ultimate needs and desires.

It also raises the question: What substance? How to identify it? Today’s guide to the answer is the widow.

Widows are mentioned nearly 100 times in the Bible. They have a special place, along with orphans, the fatherless and the oppressed, within the Law and with the prophets; they represent those who are afflicted, vulnerable and deserted. “You shall not afflict any widow or orphan,” the Lord told the Israelites. “If you do afflict them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry” (Ex 22:21-22). They were reminded that Yahweh is “the great God, mighty and awesome, who has no favorites, accepts no bribes; who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and befriends the alien, feeding and clothing him” (Dt 10:17-18).

The widow met by the prophet Elijah was not only destitute, she was not an Israelite; Zarephath was a Phoenician town on the Mediterranean coast. Seeking shelter and safety from King Ahab, Elijah had been told by the Lord that the widow would be waiting for him (1 Kgs 17:9). Both of them were in desperate straits. She, in fact, was resigned to death by starvation. But she did as the prophet of God directed her. Even in the face of death, she was willing to listen to the voice of God, and so she and her son were blessed with a miraculous source of flour and oil.

The scribes were experts in the Law, whose theological judgments carried great influence and authority. Jesus did not condemn them en masse, yet he strongly criticized the conduct of many scribes who chose style over substance. They were more concerned with looking good, getting attention and receiving honors than they were with the things of God.

Some of them “devoured the houses of widows,” likely a reference to financial fleecing. Reliant on private donations, some scribes would say prayers meant for human ears and not for God. Rather than pleading for the widows (see Is 1:17), these scribes were taking advantage of them.

This sinful behavior is contrasted with the humility and trust of the poor widow, who came to the Temple and “put in two small coins worth a few cents.” Those coins were the smallest units of monetary currency, each worth about 1/64 of a laborer’s daily wage. The monetary value was small, but it was all that the widow possessed. She gave everything, “from her poverty … her whole livelihood.”

The widow’s physical poverty was real, and she had little or no control over it. But her spiritual poverty — that is, her humility and devotion to God — was also real, and it was the result of her will and her choosing.

“She had given not out of her surplus, but out of her substance,” notes Dr. Mary Healy in her commentary on The Gospel of Mark (“Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture,” Baker, $19.99). “Her gift meant that she would have to rely on God even to provide her next meal. Such reckless generosity parallels the self-emptying generosity of God himself, who did not hold back from us even his beloved Son (Mk 12:6).”

This sort of sacrificial giving and living is not, of course, much in style. But serving God is not about style. It is about substance.

Carl E. Olson is the editor of