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?