Commentary on 1 Kings 17:10-16; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44
WE LIVE in a very image-conscious society. Status, respect and ‘face’ are very important. How we are seen is more important than who we really are.
Scribes and Pharisees are presented today as very image-conscious. It was more important to be seen and thought of as good and holy than in being really so. "They like to walk about in long robes, to be greeted obsequiously in the market square, to take the front seats in the synagogue and the places of honour at banquets."
In fact, scribes, as interpreters of the Law, were deeply respected for their great learning. They wore long white robes as a sign of their devotion to the law. People were supposed to stand in their presence and greet them with titles like "Master" or "Father". The problem was that they began to feel that such respect was a right and this was accompanied by arrogance and pomposity. The respect for God’s law they began to arrogate for themselves.
All of us can think of people in prominent positions in our own society who behave in a similar manner. They include the "nobility", those whose only claim to prominence was that they were born into a certain family; political leaders; some well-paid professionals like doctors and lawyers; people who simply have a lot of money to throw around and can surround themselves with the perks of luxury; and, last but not least, some church and religious leaders.
At the same time, Jesus accuses the scribes of being rapacious exploiters "who swallow the property of widows" while making an outward show of piety. Power and position are all too frequently linked with material greed and corruption. Again, church leaders cannot always claim innocence.
In our own time we have seen some so-called ‘televangelists’ leaders raking in contributions from thousands of simple people and then living the high life (and even an immoral life) on these contributions.
All of these things we can see in our own society. Rich socialites anxious to make the world’s Ten Best Dressed list. When some famous celebrity e.g. the wife of the US president or royalty comes to town one sees the pathetic jockeying to get into the welcoming banquet and being seated near – and, above all, being seen to be near – the ‘distinguished’ guest of honour. Politicians, community leaders and even clerics who not only get but demand to be treated specially. People in England desperate for that knighthood, in France for the Legion of Honour, or other prizes and honours that are dished out every year.
By contrast one remembers Mother Teresa coming to visit a school in Hongkong. Over her habit she wore an old grey cardigan and on her feet an ageing pair of leather sandals. A couple of weeks later she was back in India receiving the Templeton Award from Queen Elizabeth of England. Photographs showed her shaking hands with the queen and wearing the same cardigan and the same sandals. The queen did not seem to mind or probably even notice. Can you imagine the tizzy that many women would be in on such an occasion? What will I wear? How will it look on TV?…. And some men would not be any better.
Perhaps we feel that Mother Teresa was different and could get away with it. And, of course, she was different and that is the point. But why should she we be different from her? Is she saying something to us we might profitably take note of?
When we are concerned about image and ‘face’, when we are worried about what people are thinking of us, anxious whether our weaknesses are too visible, we cannot relate to other people freely and concentrate on how we can be of help to them. We are too busy looking at ourselves and not at them.
In speaking about the Scribes and Pharisees the Gospel is really talking to us Christians who suffer from exactly the same problems as they did. It is the Pharisees in our own midst that we need to be concerned about. Even more, it is the Pharisee in myself that should be a cause of most concern.
The widow’s lot
The second part of the Gospel shows a very different picture. In a way, it is a completely different scenario and yet there are connections. The linking word between the two is "widow".
The poorest people in Jesus’ society are represented by orphans and widows. In a society with no social welfare, these were people often without family support. The orphan, by definition, has no family and no means of support and is not wanted. The widow, in a society where husbands could often die young of disease or death in war, must often have been relatively young herself. In a world of arranged marriages she would never be chosen again as a bride. With her husband dead, she was of no interest either to her husband’s family or even her own. If she had no children, she was alone and uncared for and possibly reduced to poverty.
There is a striking contrast between the poor widow described in the second part of today’s Gospel and the Scribes and Pharisees in the first part. The simple piety of this woman of no social standing is contrasted with the arrogance and social ambitions of some so-called religious leaders. She is also contrasted with the rich donors ostentatiously offering money they can easily afford. It is doubtful that what they gave involved even the slightest diminution in their standard of living.
How often have we foregone a vacation, or a weekend away or even a single meal in a restaurant because the money for it was given to people who were living on the edge of survival? Again, the Gospel is pointing the finger at us and not to people who lived a long time ago.
A daring act of trust
This poor woman, in a daring act of trust in God’s providence, put into the treasury everything she had — and it was next to nothing. She had two small coins. She put in both. She could have kept one for herself. But the service of God can never be in half measures.
The First Reading from the First Book of Kings has a similar story. It also features a poor widow and her son. Reduced to absolute penury she is on her way to get firewood to cook a last meal for them both from a little meal and oil, all that she has left. She sees nothing but death before them. Then Elijah, the prophet, himself hungry, comes and asks her for water and bread. When she tells him her situation, he still asks her to make a small scone for him. In a generous act of sharing, she does so and she is rewarded by there being enough for all three of them and the jar of meal and the jug of oil does not empty until the drought is over. The message is clear: when everyone gives, everyone receives.
It may seem a foolish thing to do but there are countless examples of people doing this in the service of the Gospel. The Gospel today is saying it is only when we realise that God and the Way of Jesus is the only real source of security that we will find the happiness, peace and security we all long for.
It is not money, or property, or university degrees, or professional status, or health that really matter. These can all disappear without warning. What really matters is that people take care of each other.
A bridge story
This story in Mark also forms a bridge between the teaching life of Jesus and the Passion narrative which is soon to follow. This widow, who gives up everything she has to God and puts all her trust in God, is a symbol of Jesus himself who will soon make the total offering of his life, his work and his good name to his Father out of love for us.
This story is meant to be also a summation of all Jesus’ teaching about discipleship. He wishes us to identify with this apparent "nobody" over against the avaricious, arrogant, ambitious, image-conscious mindset represented by some of the Scribes and Pharisees and the wealthy temple-goers. The rich and famous of the day. In fact, she was anything but a "nobody"; she had a greatness which they totally lacked.
What matters is not what we have or what we can get; not what we can do or what people think of us. What matters is that I be fully, freely, truly my real self before God and before others.
Can I let go of everything to give myself totally into his hands with the sure conviction that he will give me the support I need? When a lot of us do that our faith will be confirmed.