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Saturday, 10 November 2012

32nd Sunday in Ordinary time (Year B) 2012

Thirty-second Sunday (Year B)
(1 Kings 17:10-16; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44)

The Temple in Jerusalem and the synagogues scattered throughout the country were two quite distinct aspects of the service of God in Israel: the Temple was the magnificent, world-famous, national centre of Jewish, centuries-old, sacrificial worship carried out in accordance with the Law, originally given by God to Moses.  It was the glory of Israel and the envy and admiration of all who knew her.  The synagogue, however, was a much more humble -- though equally religious -- centre for non-sacrificial worship based on the exigencies of historical suffering and prophetic guidance: a house of prayer and religious instruction in local communities throughout the country and all over the known and inhabited world.  Priests served in the prestigious Temple where hundreds of thousands, indeed millions, would come from abroad to worship at the great festivals; Scribes served the quiet synagogue assemblies gathered for sabbath prayer and religious instruction.  Robes were accepted and required for priests; they were an affectation for Scribes:
Beware of the scribes, who like to go around in long robes, and accept greetings in the marketplaces, seats of honour in the synagogues, and  places of honour at banquets.  
For those who claim understanding and virtue, indulged faults and cherished failings quickly develop into more serious matters; and with the Scribes of Jesus’ day, their affectations brought along with them ostentation, envy, and competition, all requiring finance to sustain them; and so, it should not surprise us to learn that those Scribes were also keen on money.  The criminality deserving of Jesus’ promised very severe condemnation, however, ultimately came when such love of money lead them to take advantage of the most vulnerable in society:
They devour the houses of widows.
From then on, their religiosity became nothing more than an empty shell:
Recit(ing) lengthy prayers as a (mere) pretext.
The Gospel contrasts such Scribes with the unknown widow, who, without any ostentation, puts her whole living in the collection box of the Temple:
Jesus sat down opposite the treasury and observed how the crowd put money into the treasury.   Many rich people put in large sums.  A poor widow also came and put in two small coins worth a few cents.  Calling His disciples to Himself He said to them, "Amen, I say to you, 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, her whole livelihood."
She required no respectful greeting, she sought no honours.  Unnoticed and unappreciated, probably quite unknown, she treasured what the Scribes abused: God’s goodness and majesty; and the money they treasured to their own ruin she -- totally forgetful of herself -- converted into God’s currency, unfeigned charity, to her own great reward.
Jesus pointed her out as a model for admiration and imitation to His disciples; and through His Church He still puts her example before us, His present-day disciples.
Modern critics and radicals, however, faced with those two semi-parabolic stories from the Gospel are quite likely to conclude, from the first, not that affectation, envy and greed should be resolutely avoided in one’s personal attitudes and conduct but rather that no one should be given marks of special, public, respect; and that prayer – public or private – is probably hypocritical and certainly deluded.  Likewise, from the second story, they would not dream of celebrating the woman’s self-forgetfulness and total dedication to God, but rather mock, if not condemn her, for thus jettisoning her meagre resources.
Let me, therefore, now give you a traditionally Catholic and Christian appreciation and understanding of two of today’s readings; in the first of which the Lord performed a great miracle for Elijah the prophet and for a starving woman of Zarephath, a miracle whereby Israel was saved from famine because that unknown, God-guided, widow had the humility and devotion to accord Elijah – asking for a little food and drink – respect in the name of God:
She said, "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."  Elijah said to her, "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.'"  She left and did as Elijah had said.   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.
How long might that famine have continued in Israel had that destitute widow failed to have respect for God’s servant?
Here is another, not dissimilar, story concerning Elijah:
The king (Ahaziah, king of Samaria) sent to (Elijah) a captain of fifty with his fifty men. So he went up to Elijah; and there he was, sitting on the top of a hill. And he spoke to him: "Man of God, the king has said, 'Come down!'"  So Elijah answered and said to the captain of fifty, "If I am a man of God, then let fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty men." And fire came down from heaven and consumed him and his fifty. (2 Kings 1:9ss.)
Exactly the same happened a second time:
Again, he sent a third captain of fifty with his fifty men. And the third captain of fifty went up, and came and fell on his knees before Elijah, and pleaded with him, and said to him: "Man of God, please let my life and the life of these fifty servants of yours be precious in your sight.  Look, fire has come down from heaven and burned up the first two captains of fifties with their fifties. But let my life now be precious in your sight."  And the angel of the LORD said to Elijah, "Go down with him; do not be afraid of him." So he arose and went down with him to the king.   
The king, Ahaziah of Samaria, was showing no respect for the Lord’s prophet in Israel, who -- after first having been blatantly ignored -- was now to be publicly and forcefully dragged  (from his own country indeed!) into the king’s presence like some malefactor.
For this, we are told:
The king died according to the word of the Lord that Elijah had spoken;
not even being allowed to:
come down from the bed to which he had gone up.
Now, the Scribes of whom Jesus spoke in our Gospel reading, delighted in the respect shown them by the faithful in Israel, to such an extent that they actively sought to promote it; Elijah, on the other hand, had merely accepted what he knew should and had to be accorded.  Why was one so very right and the other totally wrong?
The Scribes were wrong in their attitude because they sought respectful greetings for their own persons, “I am ME, a very learned man, and expert in my knowledge of the Law”!   Elijah expected respect only because he was the Lord’s appointed prophet: “I am the prophet of the Lord for Israel; have sincere respect for the Lord’s prophet, but as for me personally:
I am no better than my fathers.
This is a most important lesson for us today when many have lost respect for holy things, holy offices and functions, and will only honour those whom they personally consider to be admirable people.  At times such personally chosen ‘admirable’ people are indeed a strange lot: today, for example, some young people have no respect for the elderly, but idolise pop stars regularly doped and/or drunk; others cheer footballers who earn, or rather, get, millions, but they will jeer at, and abuse as fat cats, business leaders who may earn only half as much and yet provide needy work for many people.  Also in family life today, parents are frequently judged merely on the basis of their personal character while children are over indulged at time in their status as children: as a result many young people judge their parents and show them little or no respect, while childhood (extended into youth, long after innocence has been lost) is often thought by social gurus to excuse wild, disobedient, disorderly and destructive behaviour.  That is quite wrong.  A mother or father is due the respect of obedience and attention from their children because they are those children’s mother or father even though, as persons, they may not be as good as they should be.  Obedience due to parents comes to an end with adulthood; respect for parents never comes to an end even though, as I said, they may of themselves merit little.  Likewise, Mother Church, the Holy Scriptures, priests and religious, sacred vessels and church building, all deserve obedience and/or respect in varying degrees, because they belong to God, do God’s work, serve God’s purposes and give glory to His name.
Although God’s love is ever warm to succour, His power is ever ready to save, today we must be aware that there can be no justice among nations, no equity in society, no peace in our homes or in our hearts, when respect for God is ignored or withheld; when His institutions (e.g. marriage and the family) for human development and fulfilment and His order for harmony in personal relations and balance in the natural world, are sacrificed on the altar of human self-exaltation ever seeking to express and impose itself, be it in multi-national exploitation abroad (typically avoiding all local and national taxation) or social engineering at home: all in the service of the ever-more intense personal pride and unrestrained desire for extreme -- even exotic – pleasures of the powerful few; all, however, at the cost of the gradual degradation of the majority induced to satisfy themselves with lack of personal and human fulfilment, group complacency, and individual ignorance.
However, despite all such temporal trials, disappointments, and set-backs, our Catholic aspirations and expectations, our Christian hopes and prayers, will not wilt with time, nor will they ever prove futile and false for, as our reading from the letter to the Hebrews assures us:

         It is appointed that Christ, offered once to take away the sins of many, will appear a second         time, not to take away sin but to bring salvation to those who eagerly await Him.