'A widow was gathering sticks....Elijah said to her, "Do not be afraid"....She did as Elijah said, [and] she as well as he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail...' - I Kings 17:10,13,15-16

I have it on good authority that we commit a biblical mortal sin if we proclaim the shorter version of Sunday's Gospel reading (Mark 12:38-44) instead of the longer.

Few passages of Scripture are more misunderstood than that Gospel passage, mainly because we often rip part of it out of the context in which Mark originally put it.

Preachers traditionally employ the story of the widow's mite when we're trying to raise money. It provides us with a terrific example of someone who gives all she has -- "her whole livelihood" -- to a religious institution. Yet Marcan scholars have been warning us for a long time not to use this narrative in that context. It originally conveyed a message at right angles to the message we're trying to convey.

First of all, notice (contrary to popular belief) that Jesus never praises this unfortunate woman for her overly-generous donation to the temple treasury. Without making any judgment, He simply calls people's attention to what she's done: "This poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had."

He never says anything akin to, "Great going!" He never encourages His disciples to imitate her.

Beware of them
Second, note what the Gospel Jesus says immediately before He draws His disciples' attention to the widow's donation: "Beware of the scribes, who like to go around in long robes and accept greetings in the marketplaces, seats of honor in synagogues, and places of honor at banquets. They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext, recite lengthy prayers."

In other words, "Beware of 'religious' people who, for the sake of religion, make poor people poorer, then get off the hook by promising to 'say a prayer for you.'"

At this point, the itinerant preacher presents exhibit A: a poor widow who digs herself deeper into poverty because of her perceived religious obligations. Nothing better demonstrates Jesus' complaint about the religious leaders' habit of "devouring the houses of widows" than this poor widow's actions at the temple's collection box. Now who's going to take care of her?

From Luke's Acts of the Apostles (and from other sources) we know that caring for widows was one of Christianity's earliest ministries. In a world that had no Social Security benefits or survivor pension funds, many widows were instantly driven into poverty -- and an early death -- if they had no children to care for them.

Church's care
That's where the Church quickly stepped in and provided that care. In doing so, Jesus' followers were simply returning to their Jewish roots, as we hear in Sunday's I Kings (17:10-16) passage. Yahweh's prophet Elijah responds to the widow of Zarephath's generosity by providing her and her son a jar of flour that didn't go empty and a jug of oil that didn't run dry. Yahweh's concern for the poor is demonstrated and carried out by the prophet's concern for the poor.

In a world in which there was no concept of an afterlife as we know it today, salvation always revolves around the here and now. In such a context, this particular widow is the recipient of Yahweh's salvation.

Perhaps that's partially how we should hear the last line in Sunday's Hebrews (9:24-28) passage: [The risen Jesus] will appear to bring salvation to those who eagerly await Him." Knowing the background of our sacred authors, some of that salvation should always have something to do with getting rid of the anxiety which dominates the lives of the poor -- long before they cross over into eternity.