Opening the Word: Widows' lessons

It is “appointed that human beings die once,” wrote the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, “and after this the judgment … ” The finality of this statement is impossible to avoid. But we often do try to avoid it. It isn’t considered polite in many circles to talk about judgment and eternal consequences; it is too depressing and, well, judgmental. Scripture, however, does not shy away from the topic. The words “judgment” and “judge” are used about 300 times in the Bible. God is the “Judge of all the world” (Gn 18:25) whose judgments are rendered to bring about covenantal order and authentic justice among men.  

“In the presence of Christ, who is Truth itself, the truth of each man’s relationship with God will be laid bare. The Last Judgment will reveal even to its furthest consequences the good each person has done or failed to do during his earthly life” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1039). 

This emphasis on the good we have done or failed to do provides the key connection between today’s epistle and the two stories about widows. We might expect Scripture to contain many references to judgment, but may be surprised to find that widows are mentioned close to 100 times in the Bible. In the Old Testament, treatment of widows was a measuring stick for how well the Law was being followed and how attentive the people were to justice. Mistreatment of widows, declared God, would be met with strong judgment. “You shall not wrong any widow or orphan. If ever you wrong them and they cry out to me, I will surely listen to their cry. My wrath will flare up, and I will kill you with the sword; then your own wives will be widows, and your children orphans” (Ex 22:21-23). The Lord “executes justice for the orphan and the widow” (Dt 10:18). 

The defining characteristic of both widows is faith. The widow in Zarephath was essentially destitute, as widows often were in ancient cultures. Her situation was so desperate she had resigned herself to death by starvation, telling the prophet Elijah she was going to prepare “something for myself and my son; when we have eaten it, we shall die.” But when Elijah, invoking the name of God, directed her to make him some food, she left and did as he said. Her obedience resulted in the blessing of flour and oil for an entire year. 

The story of the widow from the Gospel of Mark must be heard in the larger context of Jesus’ judgment of the Temple. Having entered Jerusalem and Temple on a donkey, Jesus had “looked around at everything” (Mk 11:11). Why? Because he, the Son of God, was inspecting the house of his Father. And he found it worthy of judgment, which is why he cleansed the Temple of the moneychangers (Mk 11:15-19). Many of the religious leaders were far more concerned with looking good, receiving acclamation and obtaining honors than with worshipping God, pursuing justice and caring for widows. They, said Jesus, “will receive a very severe condemnation.” 

Yet the widow, seemingly oblivious to the corruption around her, was focused on giving what she could to God. In terms of monetary value, she gave nearly nothing — but it was all she possessed. She “from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.” And those who give everything to Christ, wrote the author of Hebrews, will look forward to Christ’s return, for he will “bring salvation to those who eagerly await him.” 

Carl E. Olson is the editor of