Some years ago, I was attending a conference and heard someone recount that the philosopher Alice von Hildebrand was pushing for Mary of Nazareth to be named the patroness of widows. My initial response was something like: What does Mary have to do with widows? Then, of course, the obvious struck me. Mary was a widow.
This rather evident observation can be overlooked by many. At some point, Mary’s beloved husband Joseph died. Traditions vary on his death, with one such prominent tradition being that he died around the thirtieth birthday of the Lord Jesus, thus instituting the Lord’s public ministry. This tradition has led to the pious practice of praying to Joseph for a happy death, since Jesus and Mary were with him as he passed into eternity. Regardless of the historicity of such a tradition, whatever it might be, it asserts the plain fact: Joseph died and Mary was a widow.
If we accept the above tradition and assume that Joseph died before the Lord began his public ministry, then this could explain Jesus’ compassionate attention and deference to widows. If his own mother was in such a state of life, then surely the Lord’s own heart would have been softened and, therefore, directed to others in such a state. But was there also another reason for the Lord’s favor to widows?
At the time of Jesus, widows and orphans were some of the most vulnerable people in society. Oftentimes, they lost family associations upon the death of their husbands and fathers. They had no protectors and no means of support. Many times, they held no legal status to own property or gain an inheritance. Many widows and orphans lived by begging, and many were forced into prostitution or slavery.
Biblically, widows and orphans were seen as suppliants. Since they had no one to care for them, and hence no one to repay a kindness to them, acts of charity toward them were particularly praised in prophetic literature. The prophets promised great rewards to those who were benevolent toward suppliants. The encouragement most likely came in reaction to rampant neglect or mistreatment. Other than these formal teachings, it appears that historically Israel was no better than Greece or Rome in terms of its actual treatment of widows and orphans.
All of this hammers home the point: Being a widow was not an easy life. Certainly, the social challenges only added to the spiritual and emotional struggles of losing a spouse.
With the above backdrop, we see a very different practice in the life and ministry of Jesus. In the few accounts we have of the Lord with a widow, we see a full display of his warmth and tenderness.
In this Sunday’s Gospel reading at Mass, the Lord is in Jerusalem. Saint Mark recounts that Jesus traveled here from Caesarea Philippi. After a Palm Sunday like entrance into the Holy City, Mark recounts a series of teachings from Jesus. This “temple discourse” is concluded – perhaps even interrupted – by the Lord’s notice of a widow. We can only imagine the emotions racing through the Lord’s human soul as he was immediately preparing for his Passion and Death. And yet, it all came to a screeching halt because he saw a widow.
While others would have paid her no mind, the Lord gave her his whole attention. Sitting opposite the place where offerings were put in the Temple, the Lord watched the rich throw in large amounts. Earlier in his ministry, he warned the wealthy about their prospects of salvation and sternly denounced those who “devoured widows’ houses.”
In contrast to the “throwing” of money by the wealthy, the Lord’s beloved widow came and offered a few cents. It was a sacrificial offering that would influence her own livelihood. It was an act of adoration and trust. The widow’s generosity, born from gratitude, exposed the greed and selfish power of the wealthy. And the Lord noticed. He called his disciples to himself, pointed out the widow, and then praised her magnanimity.
In this encounter, the Lord shows his favor to widows. They were dear to him. Not only because his own mother was a widow, but – as the one to fulfill prophecy – he was assuming his proper role as the true guardian and care-giver to widows, orphans, and all suppliants.
In showing this kindness, therefore, Jesus was revealing his divine identity. He was also showing his disciples how they were called to live and how they were to treat the widow, the orphan, and every vulnerable person.