The Paradox of Poverty – A Homily for the 32nd Sunday of the Year

Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath, Bernardo Strozzi (1630s)

The first reading in today’s Mass (1 Kings 17:10-16) speaks to us of the paradox of poverty: it is our poverty, our neediness, that provides a doorway for God to bless us with true riches. Our emptiness provides room for God to go to work.

In our worldly riches, we feel we have “too much to lose”; the Gospel just seems too demanding. In our poverty, emptiness, and detachment from this world, however, there is a strange and unexpected freedom that makes it easier to step out in faith—and stepping out in faith is the only thing that can save us.

Yes, poverty brings freedom. You can’t steal from someone who has nothing, and you can’t kill someone who has already died to this world.

Are you poor enough to be free? There’s a strange blessing in poverty. Let’s look at the first reading to see how poverty can usher in strange blessings.

The Desire Portrayed In the first reading, the prophet Elijah encounters a widow at the entrance of the city of Zarephath, a name that means “refining fire.” In those days, Elijah the prophet went to Zarephath. As he arrived at the entrance of the city, a widow was gathering sticks there; he called out to her.

Both Elijah and the widow are hungry and thirsty, for there is famine in the land. As God’s prophet, Elijah speaks not only for himself but for God when he asks the poor woman to share her meager food with him. God has a desire, a hunger, for us. The woman also has desires, but hers need to be purified in this place of “refining fire.”

The widow’s hunger for earthly food is a symbol for a deeper hunger: a hunger for communion with God. At some point our hunger must meet God’s hunger—that point we call Holy Communion. It is a place where our hunger for God and His for us meet, and we find serenity. Every other hunger merely points to this hunger, and every other “food” is but a cruel, temporary morsel until this deepest hunger is satisfied.

Thus, two people meet at a place called “refining fire.” It is desire that has drawn them, a desire that is ultimately satisfied only in God.

The Dimensions of Poverty – The woman articulates her poverty in responding to Elijah’s request: Please bring me a small cupful of water to drink.” She left to get it, and he called out after her, “Please bring along a bit of bread.” She answered, “As the LORD, your God, lives, I have nothing baked; there is only a handful of flour in my jar and a little oil in my jug. Just now I was collecting a couple of sticks, to go in and prepare something for myself and my son; when we have eaten it, we shall die.

We may wonder why God allows poverty and suffering. The quick answer is that it is because there is such grave risk in riches and comfort. The Lord is well aware of how hard it is for the wealthy and comfortable to enter the Kingdom of God. In riches we trust in ourselves, but in poverty we can only trust in God; it is only through trusting faith that we can ever be saved.

There is a kind of freedom in poverty. The poor have less to lose.

They can operate in wider dimensions and have a kind of freedom that the wealthy often lack.

Not only is it hard to steal from a poor man, but it also takes little to enrich him. A man who has lived in a great palace may be discouraged with a humble domicile, while a poor one may be satisfied with a single small room to call his own. A hungry man may appreciate mere scraps of food, while one who is already satiated may need caviar to feel grateful. The rich miss many of life’s little blessings and may suffer from boredom, whereas the poor delight in even small pleasures. The rich man’s world gets ever smaller and less satisfying; the poor are more likely to truly appreciate even the humblest things.

Here again is the paradox of poverty, wherein less is more, gratitude is easier to find, and losses are less painful. As we shall see, it is the widow’s poverty that opens her to lasting blessings. Having little to lose, she is free enough to accept the next stage of our story.

The Demand that is Prescribed – God’s prophet, Elijah, summons her to trusting faith: “Do not be afraid. Go and do as you propose. But first make me a little cake and bring it to me. Then you can prepare something for yourself and your son. For the LORD, the God of Israel, says, ‘The jar of flour shall not go empty, nor the jug of oil run dry, until the day when the LORD sends rain upon the earth.’”

Elijah tells her not to be afraid to share. In effect, he teaches her that the Lord will not be outdone in generosity. On a human level, Elijah’s request seems almost cruel, but from a spiritual perspective he is summoning her to the faith that alone can truly save her.

Note that although she is afraid, her fear is easily overcome. Why? Because she has little to lose. So many of our fears are rooted in the fear of loss. The more we have, the more we have to be anxious about. In recent decades we have grown increasingly wealthy yet seem to have more problems. What are our chief problems? Fear and anxiety about the loss, maintenance, and protection of all our “stuff.” Scripture says, The sleep of a laborer is sweet, whether he eats little or much, but the abundance of a rich man permits him no sleep (Eccl 5:12). This is so true! The wealthier we have become the more we’ve been spending on psychotherapy and psychotropic drugs. We are anxious about so many things; insomnia and stress are common today.

We have too much stuff, too much to lose. Most of us, hearing Elijah’s request, would call him crazy or cruel or both. This woman is free enough to take him up on his offer. How about us?

We, too, must come to realize that looking merely to our own self-interest will only feed us for a day. Only in openness to God and others can we procure a superabundant food, that which will draw us to life eternal.

The Deliverance Produced – Having little to lose, the woman trusts in God’s word through Elijah and shares her food. She was able to eat for a year, and he and her son as well; the jar of flour did not go empty, nor the jug of oil run dry, as the LORD had foretold through Elijah.

If we learn to trust God, we come to discover that He never fails. Of course, this takes faith, and faith involves risk. This is where poverty can have its advantages. The widow takes the risk and shares what little she has. For her, the risk is immediate, but ultimately it is a lesser risk because she has so little to lose.

So, the woman is free enough to risk it all. Her only gamble is trusting God, and God does not fail. Scripture says,

  • Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days (Eccles 11:1).
  • Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. (Luke 6:38).
  • And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward (Matt 10:42).
  • Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously (2 Cor 9:6).
  • Give generously to him and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to (Deut 15:10).
  • He who is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward him for what he has done (Prov 19:17).
  • A generous man will himself be blessed, for he shares his food with the poor (Prov 22:9).
  • He who gives to the poor will lack nothing, but he who closes his eyes to them receives many curses (Prov 28:27).

Do you believe all this? Or are these just slogans for others? Well, you never know until you try. If you don’t think you can try, maybe you have too much to lose.

Consider this woman who was poor enough to be free and free enough to try the Lord—and God did not fail. He never fails. I am a witness, how about you?

God Has His Seven Thousand: A Word of Encouragement from the Life of Elijah

This week in daily Mass we read of the struggles of Elijah the Prophet, who spent his life fighting the influence of the Canaanite god Baal in Israel. Up on Mt. Carmel, Elijah was strong and fearless, but he also had moments of deep discouragement.

Many of us today are discouraged in these times of cultural confusion, times when so many Catholics have fallen away from the practice of the faith or so easily dissent. It makes me think of the prophet Elijah at his lowest moment: he was in a cave, anxious and fretting, so depressed he could barely eat.

Those were very dark times, when huge numbers of Jews fell away from the exclusive worship of the LORD and bent the knee to Baal. Jezebel, the foreign wife of the Jewish King Ahab, was instrumental in spreading this apostasy. Elijah fought against it tirelessly and at times felt quite alone.

There he was, fleeing from Queen Jezebel (who sought his life) and deeply discouraged by his fellow Jews, who were either too confused or too fearful to resist the religion of the Baals demanded by Jezebel. Perhaps he thought he was the last of those who held the true religion. In the cave, Elijah pours out his lament.

And there he came to a cave, and lodged there; and behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and he said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He said, “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thy altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away” (1 Ki 19:9–10).

God will have none of this despair or complaining. He says to Elijah,

Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; and when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael to be king over Syria; and Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint to be king over Israel; and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place. And him who escapes from the sword of Hazael shall Jehu slay; and him who escapes from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha slay. Yet I have seven thousand in Israel, that have never bent the knee to nor bowed to Baal, nor kissed him with the mouth (1 Ki 19:15–18).

There are others after all! It is a small remnant to be sure, but Elijah is not alone. A small remnant remains faithful and God will rebuild, working with them.

Elijah is commanded not to give way to discouragement, but rather to keep preaching and to anoint leaders and a prophet who will keep preaching after him.

This is a lesson for all of us.

In times like these, it is hard not to feel like Elijah: deeply disappointed and even discouraged in the face of our current cultural decline. How many of our countrymen and even fellow Catholics have bent the knee to the Baals of our time, accepting the doctrines of demons? How many have been led astray by the Jezebels and the false religion of the Baals of our time, setting aside the cross and substituting the pillow of comfort and selfish desire? Now, like then, many are told to immolate their children, to kill the innocent through abortion (and call it “choice,” “women’s healthcare,” or “reproductive freedom”). There is widespread misunderstanding of marriage, rampant divorce, cohabitation, fornication, children being born out of wedlock, sweeping approval for same-sex unions, and even the open celebration of homosexual activity. All of this causes grievous harm to children by shredding the family—the very institution that needs to be strong if they are to be raised well.

Euthanasia is back in the news, and the legalization of polygamy may be on the horizon.

So here we are today in a culture of rebellion. Sadly, too many in the Church (including clergymen and those in the Church hierarchy) seem bewitched, succumbing to false compassion.

Lest we become like Elijah in the cave, discouraged and edging toward despair, we ought to hear again the words of God to Elijah: I have seven thousand in Israel that have never bent the knee to nor bowed to Baal.

God has a way of working with remnants in order to rebuild His Kingdom. Mysteriously, He allows a kind of pruning, a falling away of what He calls the cowards (e.g., Judges 7:3, Rev 21:8). With those who are left, He can achieve a great victory.

Consider that at the foot of the cross there was only one bishop (i.e., one priest, one man) who had the courage to be there. Only four or five women possessed such courage. But Jesus was there; and with a remnant, a small fraction of His followers, He won thorough to the end.

Are you praying with me? Stay firm! Stay confident! Do not despair! There are seven thousand who have not bent the knee to the Baals of this age. With a small group, the Lord can win through to the end. Are you among the seven thousand? Or do the Baals hold some of your allegiance? Where do you stand?

Elijah was reminded that he was not alone. Hearing of the faith of so many of you readers reminds me that I am not alone. When I hear the Amens coming from my congregation as I preach the “old time religion,” I remember that I am not alone. When I gather with other coalitions of believers, I am reminded that there are many good souls still to be found. Seek them out. Build alliances, and stand ready to resist, to fight the coming and already-present onslaughts.

I cannot be certain of the fate of Western culture (frankly, it doesn’t look good). I am not sure if these are the end times or just the end of an era. But of this I am sure: Jesus wins and so do all who stand with Him and persevere to the end. Get up, Elijah. Go prophesy, even if you are killed for it. Keep preaching until the last soul is converted..