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Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time: The story of the starving woman is a timeless lesson in considering others

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Sunday Scripture readings, Nov. 7, 2021: Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time

1) 1 Kgs 17:10-16   Psalm 146:7, 8-10
2) Heb 9:24-28  Gospel: Mk 12:38-44 or 12:41-44

The story of the starving woman is a timeless lesson in considering others

The first reading today concerns an incident in a village called Zarephath, in present-day Lebanon, thousands of miles from us. It occurred thousands of years ago, so it is distant in time also. But whether the woman in the story seems distant may depend on our experience.

The woman, her son of unstated age, and the other person in the scene — the prophet Elijah — are hungry. Not the “twingy” hunger from missing a meal. The emaciating hunger caused by chronic malnutrition.

Deprived of food, the body consumes its stored fats, then consumes the muscles and organs. Starvation is a prolonged torment. If we ourselves have suffered it to any degree, we may naturally feel close to the widow of Zarephath. Otherwise, we may view her from a distance, as just a character in a Bible story.

Speaking for myself, I am in the latter category. I have to work hard to bring this woman into focus in my mind and penetrate her experience.

Well, as Zarephath is being crushed by a drought-induced famine, Elijah shows up on the street and begs a mouthful of food from the woman. He promises her a miraculous supply of food from his God if she will grant his request.

Kevin Perrotta writes for Catholic News Service

Zarephath is not Israelite territory. The woman has no reason to take Elijah’s deity any more seriously than her own gods who have not been able to save the residents from impending death. And yet she goes home, bakes a little cake, and brings it, hot from the oven, to the Israelite prophet. Why?

You can make your own guess. Mine is that she looked in Elijah’s face and thought to herself, “Why shouldn’t I share our handful of food with this hungry man? We don’t have enough for a satisfying meal anyway. It’s what my mother would have done.”

The more I think about this woman, the more uncomfortable she makes me. In her extreme neediness, she shared what she had with a needy person.

As I sit in my pleasant house, looking forward to a tasty and nourishing dinner, my circumstances are so different from hers. The real issue, though, is not the difference in our circumstances but the difference in the kind of person I am.

And so?

I like the widow of Zarephath. She makes me uncomfortable in a good way. I am going to keep thinking about her.

Perrotta is the editor and an author of the “Six Weeks With the Bible” series, teaches part time at Siena Heights University and leads Holy Land pilgrimages. He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.