The 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time St Peter the Apostle Church in Naples, Fl
1 Kings 17, 10-16 + Psalm 146 + Hebrews 9, 24-28 + Mark 12, 38-44
There are two points of focus in the text of today’s Gospel. We are easily drawn toward the widow either in admiration or out of our usual concern for the “underdog”, so to speak. She is the poor one who stirs us with both pity and admiration. It’s easy to preach about her, I can assure you. Her behavior is admirable, and we are naturally drawn toward the generosity she expresses so humbly. However, this text is not only about her. She just happens to pass by while Jesus is speaking to the Scribes. It is hard to tell which group, the Pharisees or the Scribes was more trouble for Jesus, but I suspect it was the Scribes. They were his most fierce opponents. The Scribes were among the most eminent in that society. They wore great and fine long robes. People were expected to stand respectfully when they passed by. They had a reserved, comfortable, and prominent seat in the synagogue directly in front of the sacred scrolls. They used their privileges to exploit others. They were forbidden to receive payment for teaching, so they depended upon private donations for their living. Subsidizing a scribe was considered a great act of piety. To cover up their unethical behavior, they would recite long prayers. The problem was not the prayer however, it was the fact that instead of being directed to God, their prayers were aimed at people for the sake of the show. The admiration of the people was the only merit they would receive, says Jesus.
The warning that comes from Jesus in this text does not suggest that holding someone in esteem is wrong, but that there is a spiritual danger here that must be acknowledged and remembered by those who are so blessed and so gifted. The danger is that “entitlement” will creep in causing someone to feel that they are owed something because of who they are or because of what they have done. This is the point of contrast Jesus makes for his disciples between the scribes and the widow.
When Jesus calls the disciples to himself in Mark’s gospel, it is a signal that something important is about to take place or that a very solemn declaration is to be given. God measures gifts given on a totally different set of calculations than we do. Which is more significant, her pennies or the big contributions that built the place? God looks to the motives. Her gift was a sacrifice. She did without something to drop in her coins. Others gave from their surplus – from what was left over after they had taken care of themselves and their comfortable needs. Her gift meant that she would rely on God now to provide her next meal. The others held back, just in case. For them there was always some doubt that God might not provide, so they should provide for themselves. I find it very remarkable that the words of praise Jesus speaks for the woman are the last words spoken by the Lord in the Temple. He overturns everything anyone might think about that place. Its greatest pillars, teachers, and leaders are not those privileged Scribes, but the little people who come there out of faith and trust in God.
When we place the present into this text, we are warned against feeling privileged and acting on that feeling. We are reminded that the church, like the temple, flourishes most and best when those overlooked, forgotten, ignored, and disregarded because of their state in life claim the place and find it to be home.
This calls to mind for me the tradition around St Lawrence the Deacon of Rome responsible for distributing the alms. In 258, by decree of the emperor, the pope and six deacons were beheaded, leaving Lawrence the ranking Church official in Rome. The city prefect called him and demanded that he hand over the treasure of the church. Lawrence responded that the church was indeed very rich, and asked for a little time to gather the treasure. He then went all over the city seeking out the poor and the infirm. On the third day, he gathered a great crowd of orphans, widows, the lame and all the sick inviting the prefect come and see the wonderful riches of God. The prefect was furious; in a rage he ordered Lawrence to be put to death on a gridiron over a slow fire leaving us to remember where richness is found and what is blessed in God’s sight.
Jesus has gathered us together and spoken very clearly about the danger of thinking we are special and the consequent behavior that follows. He has spoken again about what motivates our generosity, and about how our generosity reveals our trust in God and imitates the generosity of God who makes no distinctions about who deserves what when it comes to love and mercy.