Homily for the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
November 8, 2009
St. Agnes, Cincinnati
(Based on 1 Kings 17:10-16; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44)
What are we to take as food for our spirits from the Lord’s word to us in today’s readings?
Actually, it all depends on several different levels of reading. Each can be valuable in its own way.
By juxtaposing the stories of the two widows, one in the 1st Book of Kings and the other in Mark’s Gospel, the church clearly offers one avenue for our prayer and reflection. The issue is our openness of heart, our commitment to be generous with the blessings of the Lord. The widow in Kings is down to her last meal with her son, prepared to go in and die, but she extends herself in a way beyond our imagining and offers the little she has in hospitality to the Lord’s anointed prophet. And the widow in Mark is no less generous in offering her two small coins.
Their example invites us to reflect on the way we use God’s gifts, a theme that we always need to hold before our eyes, one which we will never exhaust. What am I doing with my time and talents and energies and resources? What’s important? What do I value?
But then Mark takes the story of the widow and ties it together with Jesus’ teaching during his sojourn in Jerusalem. It opens up a whole other level for our prayer. Remember, we have been following him for several weeks after his departure from Galilee. Now he has reached his goal and he is like parents warning their kids on the dangers they will meet on their trip to the big city. He warns them – and us – of the seduction of – the scribes?
These were the upstanding religious professionals. They knew the scriptures and the law; they were careful to give alms and follow all the prescriptions and practices of a good Israelite. They were ‘pillars of the church.’ Their example is so appealing – why be on guard against that?
Because it was all about externals. It was all for show. It’s about vanity and hypocrisy. It’s about doing all the right things for the wrong reasons: to be seen and recognized. It’s not about praising the Lord, it’s not about allowing the Lord to upset a comfortable life-style. It’s not about being constantly on pilgrimage. It’s about me, me, me.
I am reminded of a fascinating experience. Some years ago we did some work with a group of Franciscan friars in Japan. There was a delightful Japanese lay friar who gave us a tour of the area. He took us to a huge Buddhist compound that was something to behold. It housed everything you would need across your whole lifetime: schools from pre-school through a university doctorate; health-care from birth to death. In the center was a huge prayer hall. Entering it was like going into an airplane hangar.
Inside the main door there was a table with the kind of materials you might find in the back of a parish church: bulletins, sign-up sheets of some sort, pens. And in the middle of the table there was a large terra-cotta roof tile. We asked Brother Benny what that was about. He said, “Oh, they’re building a new temple and they’re asking people to contribute. If you contribute a certain amount you can get your name inscribed on a roof tile.” You know, just like the plaques we’ve all seen on the doors in retreat centers or the windows in many churches: “in honor of the O’Donnell family” or “for an unnamed hero killed in the war.”
Then Benny’s eyes twinkled with an impish smile. He said, “You know, these Buddhists get the point of the Gospel better than we do. Jesus told us that when we give alms we shouldn’t let our right hand know what our left hand is doing. Well, when you donate one of these tiles your name is indeed inscribed on it – but then it is cemented on the roof face-down so only God knows that you gave it. . . “
It’s easy to let our religious practices become routine and comfortable. From time to time we need to have our consciences jogged: when we come to church on Sunday or pray in the silence of our home, are we open to letting the Lord to take us to a deeper level of relationship? Do we genuinely seek conversion?
But even that level does not go to the heart of Mark’s text. Because as Jesus warns against the ways of the scribes it turns out that it’s not just a matter of them putting all their focus on externals. He takes us to a much darker place when he says of them,”They devour the savings of the widows – and cover their guilt with prayer.” Devour. The harshness of the word makes you shudder. These are not just empty suits strutting foolishly on the religious stage. They are the beneficiaries of a wicked social system.
When a woman lost her husband in those days she had no right of inheritance. All her goods were taken from her. It was all set up to perpetrate a great injustice: the rich enjoyed the benefits and the poor paid. Their temple tax was easy, the widow’s cost her everything.
Jesus is teaching his disciples how to see the system they are participating in, as he tried to expose its foundations many times. “If you want to be first, go and become a servant.” “The prostitutes and tax-collectors will enter the kingdom before all the self-righteous.” “It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the wealthy to enter the kingdom.”
He’s not just moralizing about personal ethics and attitudes. There is an evil system at work, doing violence to the weakest, most dependent members of society.
Commentators tell us how the temple taxes were collected. There were large funnel-shaped metal cones – like the bell of a trumpet – into which you cast your coins. When the rich came, there were loud clinks as they put in coin after coin. Clink, clink, clink. Then when the poor widow dropped her two small cents in, everyone knew how poor she was, and the disgrace of her widowhood..
As I imagined the scene all I could hear was the clink-clink of the coins of our poor brothers and sisters ringing from the slot machines in the casinos we good citizens of Cincinnati just accepted by our votes last Tuesday.
Clink, clink. Another marriage broken up because a husband or wife squandered this week’s paycheck in the futile hope of that great jackpot in the sky.
Clink, clink. More children thrown out on the street as one more family can’t pay their rent and loses its home.
Clink, clink. One more woman driven to sell her body.
Clink, clink. One more suicide.
The forces of darkness triumphed one more time in our city on Tuesday. And who are the scribes of today? They’re the con artists who seduced poor people to take on mortgages they could never afford to keep up. They’re the sweet-talkers who show off their gold chains and souped-up cars to draw our kids into the drug trade. They’re the rip-offs who run the pay-day check-cashing operations up and down Reading Road, exacting exorbitant interest from people who need ready cash to pay their rent. And they’re the swindlers who peddled the tempting offer of – jobs! as they line up the Brinks trucks to haul away their profits from the slot machines.
Jobs. A mirage. I’m from Philadelphia and know what happened to all the jobs that were supposed to save Atlantic City. Which is now a ghost town.
Mark tells a striking story immediately following today’s reading:
As Jesus was making his way out of the temple area one of his disciples said to him, “Look, teacher! What stones and what buildings!”
The poor fellow was so gaga at the spectacle he was blinded to it all. He missed the whole point of what Jesus had tried to get them to see.
Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be one stone left upon another that will not be thrown down.”
Within a few short years the Romans will destroy the temple and the whole religious organization it embodied.
And so will the casinos fall into ruins in their time.
The Jesus of Mark’s Gospel is challenging us to move beyond personal piety and assume our responsibilities as citizens for the social structures that bring great benefits to those at the top of the ladder – and pain and desolation for those at the bottom.
So by all means let us be challenged by the call to be large-hearted with our material goods. And let us continually re-examine our openness to continual conversion in our religious practices. There’s material enough for a lifetime of spiritual growth in those areas.
But as we do, let’s also take the risk of asking the Lord to open our eyes to see our world as it is, and let that reality call us to be agents in the unending task of building a society that works for its least advantaged.