November 08, 2015
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. Dcn. David Justin Lynch
1 Kings 17:10-16 Psalm 146:7-10
Hebrews 9:24-28 Mark 12:38-44
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
       Today’s readings are about generosity and trusting God. Western  Christianity,  both  Catholic  and  Protestant,  share  a  two thousand year history in liberating humanity from the oppression of poverty which remains a work  in  progress.  Churches try to make a dent in the problem by participating in social services programs to feed hungry people and house homeless people. Some even provide cash assistance.  This is something churches are expected to do, and with the rise of conservatism in this country that has resulted in cutbacks to social programs to take care of the least among us, those are important ministries. Saint Cecilia’s will, from time to time, assist with those ministries, with both personnel and economic resources.  But I wonder, however, whether by doing those things, are we simply putting a Band-Aid on a cancerous sore instead of aggressively addressing the cancer with surgery to get rid of it?  Should we not be talking about the cultural values that cause poverty?
       Today’s readings give us a glimpse into the spirituality of poverty. People without much money sometimes more intensely realize the need for Jesus in one’s life and what a commitment to Jesus requires.  The widows, in both the first reading and the Gospel, give up everything, totally trusting in God to take care of them, instead of holding on to meager material goods. By contrast, the wealthier one becomes, the more one tends to trust money rather than God to provide for one’s needs.
The widows in these stories are poor, but the stories do not tell us why they were poor.  To  understand  the  significance  of  their  poverty,  one  must  understand  widowhood  in  biblical times. Widows then are not what widows are today.  Women, way back then, were essentially, property, not persons.  A  young  woman  belonged  to  her father  until  she  married,  at  which  time  she  belonged  to  her  husband.    A woman  with  the  misfortune  of  a  husband  dying  prematurely  faced  an  uncertain  and  precarious  future;  inheritance  laws  favored  a  husband’s  male  children  and  did  not  protect  widows;  thus,  widows  depended  on  the  charity  of others for survival. Some, as here, probably hung out at the Temple to be in a position to receive help. The early church was aware of, and expressed, its  concern  for  widows  in  the Book of Acts,  where  the  Gentile  Christians  complained  that  their  widows  were  neglected  in  charitable  distributions;  the  solution  was  to  ordain Deacons to help. The point is, widows were likely poor due to no fault of their own,  and  due  to  their  position  in  society,  they were  unable  to  substantially  improve  their  economic position  unless  they  remarried,  a  prospect  that  became  increasingly unlikely  as  they  grew  older.
The widow of Zarepath was left with a bit of flour and a few drops of oil to make a loaf of bread for her and her son to eat, after which she expected to die. Elijah asks her to give him the bread that she was about to put in the oven to bake. The woman agrees. She does not think about her fate; she only thinks about obeying God’s voice who speaks to her through the prophet Elijah. She trusted God to take care of everything.
The same theme of trust can be found in the Gospel reading. The two copper coins which the widow put into the temple treasury were far more significant to her than the gifts from the rich people.  She gave away money that she needed to survive, whereas the rich people gave from their surplus, money left over after living expenses were paid. After giving up a significant portion of the money she needed to survive, she trusted God to provide for her needs.
To put this in practical terms, consider two people who go to Mass, and who each gives twenty dollars a week. One is a caregiver. He earns the current minimum wage of nine dollars and hour which comes out to three hundred and sixty dollars a week for full time work. That caregiver needs every cent of what he earns to pay for food, rent, and other survival needs. The other is a software engineer. She earns seventy five dollars and hour or three thousand dollars a week. She lives well, but still has money left over after paying all her bills. Therefore, the caregiver gave more of himself to the church than the software engineer, even though in terms of dollars, they both gave the same amount of money. Recent studies in the United States reveal that, relative to their resources, lower income people are the most generous in giving to church and charity.  In this story, Jesus makes clear that “this poor widow contributed more than all the others who donated to the treasury.” She risked starvation for acting rightly, while the rich donors risked only inconvenience.
America is a capitalist society, which openly favors wealthy people. They reside in better houses, drive better cars, and live longer. Money makes a difference as to the length and quality of one’s life. However, the bad news for wealthy people is that God stands with the least among us, not with the established economic interests. The Bible is full of stories showing how God Lord secures justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry, sets captives free, gives sight to the blind, raises up those that were bowed down, protects strangers, and sustains orphans and widows. If you want to see what I mean here, read your Bible, particularly, the prophets Amos, Isaiah, and Zechariah, and the Gospel of Luke, to name just a few.
While many preachers  use  the widow-at-the-temple  story to  encourage people to give more money to the church,  that’s  not  the  entire  message.  What the widow did in this story speaks volumes about where her heart is.  She  put  her  all  into  the  treasury  just as  Jesus  emptied  all of his godliness into  becoming  human.  For  the widow,  as  for Jesus, her giving of herself was a sacrifice, in the same way the widow in the first reading gave all that she had to provide feed her son and her visitor, the prophet Elijah. She trusted that God would provide for all three of them, even after she had given up all the food she had. This is the attitude Jesus wants from His followers, the exact of opposite of the scribes mentioned in the first part of today’s Gospel reading.
We must ask ourselves: are we prepared, as Christians, to  empty  and  present  ourselves,  our  souls  and  bodies,  to  be  a  holy  and living  sacrifice  to  God?  I’m not convinced some modern Christians are.  Many people in this day and age, who consider themselves committed  Christians,  sometimes  skip  Mass  to  attend  family  outings, athletic  events,  and  entertainment  venues.  I think we can agree that their priorities are a stark contrast to those of the widow in this story. The commitment to God of some of today’s Christians is more like the rich  people  in  the  story  who  gave  out  of  their  surplus  instead  of  their substance.  Put  another  way, people who don’t have to work on Sunday come to  Sunday Mass  when  nothing  else on  Sunday  in  their secular world seems more important.
But this behavior is not entirely their fault. Most of the blame lies with us clergy. We clergy must ask ourselves what  it  is  about  the  Sunday  experience  we offer that allows people  to  believe  competing  secular  activities  can  be  more  important  than Mass. Our challenge is to make experience of attending Mass so satisfying that it becomes a high priority activity. Please know that I will always be open to listening to what you have to say about what we do here, about what we need to improve or change.
What I do know, however, is that we certainly aren’t going to attract people to church by acting like the scribes in the first part of the Gospel lesson. These guys were a bunch of narcissistic spoiled brats. Only a narcissist, that is a person with sense of entitlement arising out of an unrealistic idea of that person’s own self-importance, would insist on walking around in flowing robes demanding obeisance and the best seats both in the temple and at banquets.  We all know people who feel entitled to the best of everything based on who they think they are. Jesus found them obnoxious, just like as we do. And even more egregious, they apparently cheated widows out of their property, much like the fraudsters portrayed on the CNBC program, “American Greed.”
Not only were these scribes lacking in humility and overflowing with greed, they were practitioners of oppression. Jesus criticized them for laying too many burdens on people’s shoulders. For hundreds of years, not just Catholicism, but many other religions, have imposed burdensome rules on people.  Having a bunch of silly rules is exactly the kind of legalistic approach to religion that Jesus condemned. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus criticized the Jewish purity codes and dietary regulations as inviting hypocrisy. The Sadducees, scribes, Pharisees, and others like them, believed if they obeyed the rules and did all the right prayer rituals, they’d escape punishment from God, in this life and the next.  That’s what they used to justify imposing rules on people. They wanted to make people scared of God. The problem with this mindset, however, is that it shifted the spiritual emphasis towards rules and away from worshipping the majesty of God’s creation and the experience of God’s love.
Religious rules give the religious elite security. It enables them to control and dominate others for their own benefit, setting themselves as self-appointed gatekeepers to God. Unfortunately, the same mindset Jesus observed in the Judaism of his day carried over into Christianity. Imposing rules on people is the kind of thing that makes people stop going to church. Perhaps a church that feels hardship should look inward at itself and ask if it is doing what the Pharisees are accused of doing in today’s Gospel reading. They are obviously not the sacrificial givers who will further the Kingdom of God. Jesus neither needs nor wants a gatekeeper.  Jesus wants followers like this widow, who, without significant resources, gave to the temple a significant portion of her scarce wealth.
Today’s readings remind us that the generosity of the two widows emanates from the generosity of God, who is generous to us out of love. The widow of Zarephath is saved from starvation because of her generosity to the prophet Elijah. When we live as a disciple of Jesus, like the widow with two coins, we come to the temple of God, God’s kingdom on earth, open to engage our whole being, our whole livelihood, lived with priorities of service, simplicity and surrender from our self-serving lifestyle. When we do that, we experience the generosity of God, manifested to us in Jesus, who wants commitment of all that is within us, given out of love.  AMEN.