The Paradox of Poverty – A Meditation on the Readings for the 32nd Sunday of the Year

The first reading in today’s Mass, from 1st Kings, speaks to us of the paradox of poverty. And the paradox is this, that it is often our poverty, our neediness, which provides a doorway for God to bless us with true riches. It is our emptiness that provides room for God to go to work.

Yes, in our riches we have “too much to lose,” and to the rich and worldly minded, the Gospel seems too demanding. But in our poverty, our emptiness and detachment from this world, there comes 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 a man who owns nothing, you can’t threaten a woman who has nothing to lose, 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.

I. The Desire Portrayed – In the first reading, the prophet Elijah encounters a widow at a city named Zarephath, a name which 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 of them are hungry, for there is famine in the land. But Elijah, as God’s prophet, speaks not only for himself, but for God when he asks this very poor woman to share her meager food. For, truth be told, God has a desire, a hunger for us. The woman too as many desires, but her desire needs to be purified in this place called “refining fire.”

For her hunger for earthly food must be seen as a mere symbol for a deeper hunger, a hunger for communion with God. At some point out hunger must meet God’s hunger. And that point we call Holy Communion. It is a place where our hunger for God and God’s hunger for us meet and we find serenity. Every other hunger but points to this hunger, and every other “food” is but a cruel and temporary morsel until this 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.

II. The Dimensions  of Poverty. The woman articulates her poverty as he makes his 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 because there is such a 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, in poverty we can only trust God.

And it is only by trusting faith that we can ever be saved. And, as we have noted 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 known a great palace with high cathedral ceilings and marble wainscoting will be little more than discouraged with a humble domicile. Whereas, a poor man may be satisfied with a mere 8 x 12 room to call his own. A man who has had no food may appreciate sardines, whereas a man who is satiated may need caviar to be grateful. The rich miss many of life’s little blessings and suffer boredom whereas the poor never miss the color purple and delight in even small pleasures. The rich man’s world gets ever smaller and unsatisfying, the poor are more likely to have wide appreciation of 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. And, as we shall see, it is her poverty that opens this woman to lasting blessings. Having little to lose, she is free enough to accept the next stage of our story.

III. 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.'”

He tells her not to be afraid to share, and in effect, teaches her that the Lord will not be outdone in generosity. At a merely human level, Elijah’s request may seem almost cruel. But from a spiritual perspective, Elijah is summoning her to the faith that alone can truly save her.

And note, that though she expresses a fear, her fear is easily overcome. Why? Again, she has little to lose. So many of our fears are rooted in a fear of loss. And, have more, we are anxious about more. As we have grown quite wealthy in recent decades what are our chief problems? Fear and anxiety about loss, maintenance and proper securing of 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). And this is true. The wealthier we have become the more we spend on psychotherapy and psychotropic drugs. We are anxious about many things and sleepiness and stress are common problems.

Too much stuff. Too much to lose. Most of us, hearing Elijah’s request would call him crazy or cruel or both. Funny thing though, this woman is free enough to take him up on his offer. How about you? How about me?

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

IV. The Deliverance Produced. Having little to lose, she 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 God never fails. Of course it takes faith, and faith involves risk. And here is where poverty can have its advantages. She takes the risk and shares what little she has. For her the risk is immediate but ultimately less since she has less to lose.

And so the woman is free enough to risk it all. He only gamble is to trust 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 somebody else? Well, you don’t know until you try. And 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. God never fails. I am a witness, how about you?

This songs says, “God never fails. He abides in me, gives me the victory, God never fails.”

Bonus Track: Too Much Stuff by Delbert McClinton:

19 Replies to “The Paradox of Poverty – A Meditation on the Readings for the 32nd Sunday of the Year”

  1. “Too much stuff! It’ll wear you down carrying too much stuff. Woo! Too much stuff!”

    That’s true. The less clutter we have, the more God we have. God is light. “He’s not heavy; He’s my brother.” 🙂

  2. Thanks for your powerful message. I am a chaplain who visits nursing homes and this week I will share some of your thoughts with my brothers and sisters. Keep up the great work ! Love in Christ

  3. Thanks for your powerful message. I am a chaplain who visits nursing homes and this week I will share some of your thoughts with my brothers and sisters. Keep up the great work ! Love in Christ

  4. Eileen, GMTA, before clicking on the comments I was thinking exactly that!!

    Monsignor, you are the best! You are such a blessing. 🙂

  5. Msgr. Pope,

    When my husband left me for another woman three years ago to face pending unemployment, an empty bank account, a home in foreclosure and a daughter to put through parochial high school and eventually college; the only thing that kept me going was my faith, and He did not fail to take care of the two of us.

    Eight months later, I found a job and a lawyer to work on the home, my daughter is in her first year of college on a full scholarship. It was a struggle to stay firm in my faith, and God our Father never let go of my hand. I always had money for the important things and sometimes it would come in the most surprising ways from the most unexpected people.

    Now looking at the past three years, I never stopped giving to the poor. Maybe it was not as much as I had in the past and many times I felt put upon because I had a daughter to support and should be excused for not giving, but I gave anyway because the person asking had less than I.

    My one recurring question these past three years was, “Who am I and what have I done to have been so blessed through all of this?” Today I know.

  6. It is easier to be satisfied with an 8 by 11 room, if one knows that he will have shelter and 3 square meals at least until he retires, imo. If all of us have to start paying off our $51,000 + share of the national debt, then hardly any of us will have to worry about having too much stuff. God help our country!

  7. If we look at the widow with Elijah and the widow in the Gospel in terms of social justice and how that ought to shape public policy, it is interesting that in both cases, it is not just the rich who are obligated to give, even the poor are expected to contribute something, to give and not merely receive as a matter of entitlement.

    On another track, hearing the Elijah story today, I was struck how it resembled Jesus’ miracle of the multiplicity of the loaves and fishes, where the bread did not run out, as well as the miracle of Hannukah, when the oil to light the temple did not run out, with both bread and oil having great sacramental significance. The Eucharistic dimension especially jumped out when our priest told us “the rest of the story,” about how it was this woman’s son, believed to be dead, whom Elijah subsequently restored to life.

  8. It’s almost 3pm here and I always try to say the Divine Mercy Way of the Cross during the 3 o’clock hour. Today I will pray it for [those who suffer], asking God to give you peace and strength to bear suffering. I am partial to St. Francis de Sales’s “Be at Peace”

    Do not look forward in fear to the changes of life;

    Rather look to them with full hope that as they arise,
    God, whose very own you are, will lead you safely
    through all things;

    And when you cannot stand it, God will carry you
    in His arms.

    Do not fear what may happen tomorrow;

    The same everlasting Father who cares for you today will take care of you then and every day.”

    He will either shield you from suffering or will give you
    unfailing strength to bear it.

    Be at peace and put aside all anxious thoughts and

    The words “God, WHOSE VERY OWN YOU ARE, will lead you SAFELY through all things” and “He will either shield you from suffering, or give you UNFAILING STRENGTH to bear it” are of tremendous comfort to me. I had really wanted to always be shielded from the suffering, and then one day the words “unfailing strength to bear it” jumped out at me, and I thought “ok, if You’re are not going to take it away from me, please give me that strength”, and He has. And the suffering is all external now, not inside of me. I pray for the same for you.

  9. I like how Kris Kristofferson wrote it and Janice Joplin sang it. “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

  10. I cannot presume to understand your situation. The hardest thing for me in Christianity is pain and suffering. It would be much easier if we could have a combination of prayers, fasting etc that would insure we received a clear answer in the way we want it when we are in pain. That there is no promise of earthly relief but great relief in Heaven can be small comfort when your child is suffering in some way. (My experience here) We have cebturies of people suffering that either prayed until their heads popped or had others praying for them with no relief. There is no heat break greater than a parent for a suffering child when we are helpless to affect the situation. All true. Unfortunately Christ’s teachings and lessons are also True. God’s only Son elected to suffer for no immediate personal benefit but for love of us. If I could ever have a healing touch I would use it for people like you. All I have are prayers and Truth from Christ. Please have Serenity and Peace from Christ even if things get worse but I pray they will get better. Continue to make the sacrifices that a father must make for his children as our Lord did for us.

  11. Monsignor, great as always. Might you consider a teaching on faith(trust) vs. hope? I have endless hope, but sometimes I’m a little short of 100% faith(trust). The best analogy is the 3rd Indiana Jones movie when “Indy” takes a leap of faith across an “empty” chasm. I’m not sure I could take that first step.

    God Bless


  12. Any man to whom God gives riches and property, and grants power to partake of them, so that he receives his lot and finds joy in the fruits of his toil, has a gift from God. (Ecclesiastes 5:18)

  13. Love your reflections, Father. The story of these two widows never fails to remind me of my mother. She always managed to give flour or chapattis and vegetables to the poor who came our way. Although we did not have enough to eat ourselves, somehow God stretched the flour and oil, the lentils and rice … these miracles happen today too.

  14. That refining fire can be intense, and one might be in it for so long that he is tempted to despair of it ever ending. Yet even if it were the case that the widow does as Elijah asks, not because of any great faith or trust in God, but because she has simply given up, resigned herself to her doom, still the fact is that she complied. Whatever her reason was, she did as she was asked by the prophet of the Lord. Thus, even if one objects to this being a story of faith, it is very much a story of hope — despite all the hardships, God will not fail us, and it is even OK to be frustrated and distraught, He understands.

    If we go beyond the passage read at Mass and read the entire chapter and subsequent chapters, we see that although the flour and oil did not run out, shortly thereafter, the woman’s son got sick and stopped breathing. This is the thanks she gets?? One can understand her exasperation, and that of Elijah, who cried out, “O LORD, my God, will you afflict even the widow with whom I am staying by killing her son?” But as noted above, with Elijah’s prayer, the boy is restored to life.

    Meanwhile, these events happen during a time of oppression and persecution by the evil King Ahab and Jezebel, in addition to bad economic times. When Jezebel threatened Elijah’s life, he too was ready to give up, “This is enough, O LORD! Take my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” He was weary and he wanted to rest, but an angel insisted that he go on, that he eat and strengthen himself for the struggle ahead. God spoke to him, but it was in a whisper.

    The backdrop to these events is persecution and a good proportion of the people worshiping a false god (Baal), and it is reminiscent of what you might read in the Book of Revelation, or what you might read in today’s Washington Post or New York Times. But just as one of the ultimate messages of the Book of Revelation is hope, that God and good will prevail in the end over suffering and evil, so too is that the message of these chapters about Elijah. In the course of these events, Elijah puts the One True God and Baal to a contest, wherein the latter is proven to be false. The worshipers of Baal called out and slashed themselves with swords and spears so that their blood might drip on an altar to Baal, just as people now cut gashes into themselves worshiping our false gods of today. But the Lord God shows Himself to be true and His enemies, the prophets of Baal, are slaughtered. In short, good defeats evil.

    But, again, through it all, Elijah sometimes gets exasperated and frustrated and annoyed, just as several Psalms have the writer crying out desparately to God, “Why? Why all this suffering?” This tells us that we are not alone when we feel that we are at the end of our rope, when we feel that we cannot take it any longer — we have plenty of company throughout Salvation History. But the lesson again and again is that God will prevail over the evil and suffering we face, He will not let us down. This knowledge gives us hope, it gives us heart, the courage and fortitude to persevere, to keep on going even if we do understandably complain on occasion.

    Back to the widow though. Even if she had given up, notice that in resigning herself and her son to death, she did not do what many others did in that region — kill and eat her own child to prevent starvation. She recognizes that he has an inherent dignity and, rather than it being better that she be all on her own, her son is a gift. If she lived by herself, she might be nominally better off economically, but she would lack something even more precious than money — her son’s love. Yes, it may seem that life is harder when one has the responsibility and expense of children, but that life would be impoverished, not made easier, without them.

  15. That is absolutely right. There is no problem here so long as boards, managers, and their attorneys or collection companies know and understand an association’s rights. Post CT (Bank taking certificate of title) they owe everything from day one. There is no safe harbor, no limit of liability for late interest, late fees, costs, and reasonable attorney’s fees. The association is entitled to full compensation of their legal fees so in essence if the association is managed properly this is a non-problem. In any case I always enjoy reading your column and want you to keep up the good work advocating for community associations.

Comments are closed.