The first reading in today’s Mass, from 1st Kings, speaks to us of the paradox of poverty. And the paradox is this: it is often our poverty, our neediness, that 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.” To the rich and worldly minded, the Gospel seems too demanding. But in our poverty, 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 a kind of freedom. You can’t steal from a man who owns nothing. You can’t threaten a woman who has nothing to lose. 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 today’s first reading to see how poverty can usher in unexpected blessings.
I. The Desire Portrayed – In the first reading, the prophet Elijah encounters a widow at a city named 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 woman are hungry, for there is famine in the land. But Elijah, as God’s prophet, speaks not only for himself, but also 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 desires need to be purified in this place called “refining fire.”
Her hunger for earthly food must be seen as a symbol of a deeper hunger, a hunger for communion with God. At some point, our hunger must meet God’s hunger—and that point is Holy Communion. It is the place where our hunger for God and God’s hunger for us meet and we find serenity. Every other hunger only points to this deeper hunger; every other food is but a cruel and temporary morsel until this deeper 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 – When Elijah makes his request, the woman articulates her poverty: “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. A partial 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 sort 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 with cathedral ceilings and marble wainscoting may be discouraged with a humble domicile, whereas a poor man may be satisfied with a mere 8 x 10 room to call his own. A man who has had nothing to eat may appreciate sardines, whereas a well-fed man may need caviar to be grateful. The rich may miss many of life’s little blessings and suffer from boredom. The poor are less likely miss the brilliant color purple and delight even in small pleasures. The rich man’s world gets ever-smaller and less satisfying, while the poor man is more likely to have a wide appreciation for 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 in this passage, it is the woman’s poverty that opens her 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.’”
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 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.
Notice that although she expresses a fear, it is easily overcome. Why? Again, because she has little to lose. So many of our fears boil down to a fear of loss. And the more we have, the more we have to be anxious about. We have grown quite wealthy in recent decades. And what are our chief problems these days? Fear and anxiety about loss, and the maintenance and protection 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). The wealthier we have become, the more we spend on psychotherapy and psychotropic drugs. We are anxious about so many things that sleepiness and stress are common problems.
We have too much stuff, too much to lose. Upon hearing Elijah’s request, most of us would call him crazy, cruel, or both. It’s a 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 looking after merely our own interests 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.
IV. 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 it takes faith, and faith involves risk. This is where poverty can have its advantages. The woman takes the risk and shares what little she has. For her, though the risk is immediate, it is ultimately lower since she has less to lose.
And 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 someone 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?
Here’s a fun song reminding us that too much “stuff” will wear us out.