32nd. Sunday (Year B)
(1 Kings 17:10-16; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44)
The national Temple in Jerusalem and the local synagogues scattered throughout the country were two quite distinct aspects of the worship of God in Israel: the Temple – built by King Herod in his attempt to woo the Jewish people -- was a 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, though a much more recent and humble institution, was nevertheless an intensely religious centre for spiritual worship based on the exigencies of the Ten Commandments, God’s Law given through Moses as a covenant with Israel, to be interpreted, promoted, and purified by the inspirations of God-sent prophets during her history of blessings, unfaithfulness, and suffering. The synagogue was a centre of worshipful prayer, religious instruction, mutual comfort and strength, in local communities throughout the country and indeed all over the known world where Jews had congregated. It might be said that the sacrificial worship offered in the Temple of Jerusalem was centred on the glorification of God and satisfaction for Israel’s national and individual sin; the synagogue worship was directed more expressly to growth in the Jewish people’s understanding of and obedience to God’s will and purpose for His Chosen Peoplen.
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; and while robes and finery were acceptable and indeed often required for priests, they were an undeniable 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.
Now, for those who claim understanding and profess virtue, faults indulged and failings cherished quickly develop into more serious matters; so also in Jesus’ day, the affectations of the scribes brought along with them ostentation, envy, and competition, all of which required finance to sustain them. Therefore, it should not surprise us that such scribes were also keen on money. However, the criminality which provoked Jesus’ promise of very severe condemnation ultimately came when such love of money led 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 greetings, she sought no honours. Unnoticed and insignificant, she treasured what the scribes tended to abuse: God’s goodness and majesty. The money they treasured to their own ruin, she -- totally forgetful of herself -- converted into God’s own currency with which she was most lavish: amazing and unfeigned charity, love of and respect for God, meriting her eternal 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.
As we heard in our first reading, the Lord had of old performed a great miracle for Elijah the prophet involving another wonderful woman, again unknown, and this time on the point of starving: a widow of Zarephath. It was a miracle whereby Israel had been ultimately 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, 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, "First make me a little cake and bring it to me. 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 not shown such respect for God’s servant?
And so, we have two humble women – one in the Old Testament reading, the other in the NT experience of Jesus. Two women utterly prodigal in their respect, reverence, for God in the person of His prophet and in the Temple of His glory. In both cases, however, assumed abuse of these two women provides a welcome handle for atheistic critics: How could God, either with Elijah or in Jesus allow, accept, and even praise such abuse saying:
She, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood?
Towards an answer for such a problem, here is another, not dissimilar, story concerning Elijah (2 Kings 1:9ss.):
The king (Ahaziah, king of Samaria) sent to (Elijah) a captain of fifty with his fifty men. So he went up to Elijah on the top of a hill and he spoke to him: "Man of God, the king has said, 'Come down!'" So Elijah answered 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.
Exactly the same happened a second time. Finally, we are told:
The king sent a third captain of fifty with his fifty men. When the third captain had climbed the hill, he fell to his knees before Elijah, pleading with him. He said, "Man of God, already fire has come down from heaven, consuming the first two captains with their companies of fifty men. But now, let my life count for something in your sight!" Then the messenger of the LORD said to Elijah, "Go down with him; you need 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 whatsoever for the Lord’s prophet in Israel who -- after first having been blatantly ignored in favour of Baalzebub, the god of Ekron -- was now to be publicly and forcefully dragged (from his own country across the river Jordan indeed!) into the king’s presence at Samaria like some malefactor. For this, we are told:
The king died according to the word of the Lord spoken by Elijah;
not even having been allowed to leave the bed upon which he had sought relief.
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 further it by promoting themselves. Elijah, on the other hand, had merely accepted what he knew should, and indeed must, be accorded to a prophet sent by the God of Israel. The scribes were wrong in their attitude because they sought respectful greetings for their own persons, “I am ME, a very learned man, an expert in my knowledge of the Law. You should respect me very much for that! Elijah expected respect only because he was the Lord’s commissioned prophet: “I am a prophet sent by the God of Israel; have sincere respect for the Lord’s prophet; but, as for me personally, I am no better than my fathers.”
The two women in today’s readings were prodigal with themselves in their respect and reverence for God; and in the last story God, through Elijah, expressly and most emphatically asserted the need for and admiration of such respect and reverence.
Now let me quote words of Jesus uttered before (Mk. 8:34-38) our Gospel story:
Whoever wishes to come after Me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and that of the Gospel will save it.
There Jesus expresses in words for all what He admired and allowed in particular for one specially endowed woman. Our trouble today is that some disciples are in danger of seeking to rob the Faith of any mystery or demands above most ordinary human understanding; to apologize for whatever cannot be immediately and easily explained. God’s words are wisdom and truth expressing divine love, we should not try to change them into milk, saccharine, and water offering immediate and earthly satisfaction. We must never forget Jesus’ further words:
Whoever is ashamed of Me and of My words in this faithless and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of when He comes in His Father’s glory with the holy angels.
This is a most important lesson for us today for the fact is that many moderns have lost any respect for holy people and things, holy offices and functions, and we Catholics and Christians are becoming too prone to appease them with attempts to explain away whatever might seem hard in the demands of God.
We, however, have been given but one prayer of Jesus as a model of all our prayer, and it begins:
Our Father Who are in heaven, HALLOWED BE THY NAME!
Our modern atheists and critics only honour those whom they personally consider to be admirable. At times such personally chosen ‘admirable’ people are indeed a strange lot: today, for example, many young people have no respect for the elderly, but idolise pop stars regularly doped and/or drunk, and film stars notorious for their disgraceful and degrading sexual indulgences. There are others who cheer footballers who get millions, but they will jeer at, and abuse as fat cats, business leaders who may earn half as much and provide needy work for many people. Also in family life today, respect for parents is too frequently considered ‘out of date’ while children are over-indulged in their status as children. 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. Obedience due to parents comes to an end with adulthood; respect for God-given parents, however, should never come to an end. Likewise, Mother Church, the Holy Scriptures, priests and religious, sacred vessels and church buildings, all deserve obedience and/or respect in varying degrees, because they belong to God and are called to do God’s work, to serve His purposes and give glory to His name.
Although God’s love is ever warm to succour, His power 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 exploitation abroad (typically avoiding all local and national taxation) or dabbling in social engineering at home; all being done in the service of an ever-more intense personal pride and an unrestrained desire for extreme expressions of total freedom from any so-called divine prohibitions, or restraints from the form and make-up of our human nature or of the world we live in.
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.