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Sunday 7 November 2021

Learn from the poor

1 Kings 17:10-16; Mark 12:38-44

By Gerry Proctor

Currently living outside parish structures in the city centre of Liverpool, where, he says, ‘I am challenged to preach with my life first and foremost.’ Previous ministry includes working as a missionary priest in South America

Context: Those living in the contemporary secular inner-city

Aim: To examine from whom we take inspiration, who is capable of grabbing our attention and from whom are we prepared to learn life lessons. Those who live with a truly generous and trusting heart have the power to renew our preaching by challenging and changing our attitudes and values. It fits with Pope Francis’ call to learn from those at the margins, the poor, those from the edge and not the centre

It was an encounter I have never forgotten. In fact, it radically changed my life. Over 30 years ago I was working in Ecuador where I met a widow who had brought her only child to the hospital. He was dying following a deadly snake bite, but she had no means to acquire what was needed to save his life. I found her sat on the floor at the bottom of his bed not able to look at him in his slow agony.

I immediately decided to rush off to Guayaquil to get the anti-venom and blood transfusion he needed praying throughout the three-hour journey he would still be alive when I returned. The boy miraculously survived and eventually mother and son returned home to their home in the foothills of the Andes.


A couple of months later I wanted to see how they were doing but didn’t know exactly where they lived. However, enquiring amongst the people of the area whilst ascending the mountain on horse-back, I eventually came to the isolated shack that was their home. It was the poorest dwelling I had seen. We sat outside on two boxes, and she soon laid out a small line of corn that terminated at her feet. After a while a chicken came around and started eating the corn until it gobbled up the last piece of maize and she grabbed it round the neck, stuffing it into a sack and handing it to me whilst thanking me profusely for the life of her child.

I didn’t need it, I didn’t want it, it was her only source of nutrition and I begged her to keep it. Her final words that ended the discussion were ‘the God who sent you to save my boy’s life will find food for us to eat tomorrow.’ I was never the same again. I had learnt about real generosity and authentic living faith in a way no sermon could ever teach.

In the first reading, the widow at the gates of Sidon whom Elijah meets also had a young son and they were starving to death during a severe famine when the foreign man approached her for sustenance, and she didn’t refuse him. The gospel places before us another widow, this time in Jerusalem at the Temple where Jesus notices her putting into the Treasury two small coins. He told his disciples that she had ‘put in everything … all she had to live on.’

The evangelist sets up a contrast with Jesus’ opening, ‘Beware of the scribes …,’ a salvo culminating in the warning: ‘the more severe will be the sentence they receive.’ This excoriating outburst is a serious critique of the spiritual authenticity and religious identity of those whose position in society gave them respect and honour. They were definitely not examples to be followed. But, by calling his disciples to him whilst ‘this poor widow’ was still close by, he showed them who was an example they should follow: a woman shown no respect or honour and with no position in society except at the bottom, with others on the margins, at the edge amongst the most vulnerable and disadvantaged.

Of course, in crafting his gospel Mark has two simultaneous approaches in mind: one is the story of Jesus up to and including his passion and death and the other is the story of the post-resurrection Jesus in the emerging Christian community. So, this gospel serves as a constant orientation to disciples in any age to explore the fundamental question: Who impresses you, who gets your attention, on whom are you modelling your life, whose example are you following, who are you learning from to progress your faith journey? Can you focus on those at the margins, the ones everyone else ignores, those with little or no prestige or power? Can you learn from them, regardless of whether they are of your faith or ethnicity?

Both the widows in today’s readings become a mirror to allow the followers of Jesus in every generation to see whether our faith is of the kind that leads us (like the widow in the Temple) to ‘put in everything’ for the development of the missionary community of disciples, sharing with them and with the poor ‘all we have to live on’? The Sidonian widow teaches us a further lesson in that she not only shares her last meal (again, ‘all she had to live on’) but she does so with a foreigner, someone not from her race or religion, trusting that God will keep her and her young boy alive during the famine.

What inspirational women!

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