Widows in the Bible: Joy Over Ashes

There’s a woman I know living by herself in a small house in Wisconsin, who has known great sorrow. Some twenty years ago, her former husband was flying a small plane. In that plane were her cherished loved ones: her daughter, her son-in-law and three grandchildren, ranging in age from fifteen to ten. The plane crashed; all were killed.

In that moment, that horribly cruel moment, so much of what my friend held dear turned to dust. And yet she still has faith. She has joy. If there is a soup kitchen to be staffed, she is the one standing up in church, asking for volunteers to feed the hungry. If there is a book she thinks a child should read, she will buy it. And she writes notes: thank you notes, notes of affirmation, notes of love.

She has kept her faith, encouraging others to see good in the midst of despair, joy in the midst of tragedy. In a time where tragedy and chaos could have taken down her soul and buried it along with the ashes of her loved ones, she chooses instead, each day, to act, love, and redeem.

And that is also what happens this Sunday in church with the Revised Common Lectionary readings (RCL). All three (both options for the Old Testament reading and the Gospel reading) deal with powerful and life-giving choices made by widows.

Ho-hum, you might say. I can hear it now. Ho-hum. Widows. What’s the big deal?

The big deal starts here: Widows in the Bible are the ones for whom life cannot get much harder. At best, they have loved and been loved; they have known financial and emotional security; they have had a place—around the table at home, in society. And yes, at worst, they might have known abuse or rape. They might have served as concubines (lower-on-the-social scale than wives), primarily brought in to to bear and raise children, thus increasing the husband’s work force and stature.

Either way, life was hard. But when one became a widow, it grew even harder. Poverty, isolation and abandonment were everyday realities.

And that’s why Sunday’s readings are so extraordinary. The first: Ruth and Naomi, mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. Both widows, one young and one old, they are on the way to Bethlehem, Naomi’s home. A dangerous wilderness journey, Naomi is determined to die where her life had begun. Ruth, a Moabite, and soon to be a stranger in a strange land, will not turn back from following her mother-in-law. We know her famous words:

“Entreat me not to leave you or to return from following you; for where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God; where you die I will die, and there I will be buried.” Ruth 1:16-17

This Sunday’s reading, however, deals with a powerfully provocative theme: sex. Ever the meddling mother-in-law, Naomi urges Ruth to “lie down” next to Boaz, a relative and potential husband, on the threshing room floor after a night of celebration and harvest. Ruth 3:1-5

Through their courage and sheer stubbornness, both Naomi and Ruth find redemption. They choose life over death; faith over despair.

In the alternative OT reading, the widow of Zarephath (okay in those names, women weren’t known by their own names) faces a heart-wrenching day. Her son is dying from starvation and she is outside her camp, gathering what few sticks exist so that she might build a fire and make the boy a last meal. 1 Kings 17:7-16

Into her presence stumbles a man, one whom she guesses to be a holy man because of his clothes. He asks her to make him a biscuit. “But we have no food!” she replies, knowing that she must use what little she has to feed her dying child.

And yet she listens. She builds her fire, and makes the man a meal. Suddenly, a miracle occurs. The holy man turns out to be the prophet Elijah. A miracle, God’s miracle, occurs. Abundant grain and oil fill her larder. There is food. There are full stomachs. Her son lives because of her generosity.

Once again, life from despair. Kindness, chesed, sacred kindness.

Significantly, the widow of Zarephath is one of only two women from the Old Testament (the other was the Queen of Sheba) that Jesus quotes. He mentions her great kindness shortly after he emerges from the wilderness, having been tested by the Spirit. Perhaps he too found what it was like to have nothing.

Finally, Sunday’s Gospel (Mark 12:38-44). It’s pledge season at the temple. Jesus watches as affluent people put large sums of money into the treasury. And then he sees something that touches his heart: a poor widow putting in all she has, two small coins. “This poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Jesus knew.

What we see this Sunday is nothing less than the story of faith that repeats itself over and over in the Bible: those without power finding reserves deep within them because of their love of God.

Survival. Hope. Caring for others. And in doing so, the world finds redemption.

God bless widows and all who grieve. God bless those who have little and still give all they have.

Adapted from Bible Women: All Their Words and Why They Matter, published by Forward Movement. Author: Lindsay Hardin Freeman.
Artwork: Painted by Karen N. Canton, from The Scarlet Cord: Conversations with God’s Chosen Women, published by John Hunt Publishing. Author: Lindsay Hardin Freeman
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