Homily starter anecdote: Saint Mother Teresa’s mite: Consider David Porter’s comment on Mother Teresa: “She was born as Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu (AG-nes GOHN-jah BOY-yah-jee-oo), to Albanian parents in Yugoslavia. She went to India in 1929 as a member of the Loreto Order of nuns, after learning English in their Motherhouse in Dublin Ireland. There she taught for many years and became principal of the school. In 1946, she received her ‘call within a call’ to work with the poorest of the poor. By 1948, she had received permission to leave the Loreto order and had trained in the nursing skills she would need to carry out her calling. She prayed, “Oh God, if I cannot help these people in their poverty and their suffering, let me at least die with them, close to them, so that I can show them your love” [Mother Teresa: The Early Years, 67; cited by Caroline J. Simon, “The Media and Mother Teresa,” Perspectives, 12 (March, 1997), 3.] Simon notes: “From this simple beginning, the Missionaries of Charity have grown to include 4,500 Sisters and Brothers, 755 homes for the children, the sick, the destitute and the dying and 1,369 medical clinics that serve 120,000 worldwide.” Mother Teresa’s mite has might, and it’s the ever-growing might of love in action.
Scripture lessons summarized: The first reading and the Gospel today present poor widows who sacrificially gave their whole lives and means of livelihood to God, symbolizing the supreme sacrifice Jesus would offer by giving His life for others. In the first reading, taken from the First Book of Kings, a poor widow who has barely enough food for herself and her son welcomes the prophet Elijah as a man of God, shares her food with him and receives her reward in the form of a continuing daily supply of food. In the Gospel, Jesus contrasts the external signs of honor sought by the scribes with the humble, sacrificial offering of a poor widow and declares that she has found true honor in God’s eyes. The poor widows in both the first reading and the Gospel gave away all that they possessed for the glory of God. The sacrificial self-giving of the widows in the first reading and the Gospel reflects God’s love in giving His only Son for us, and Christ’s love in sacrificing himself on the cross. The second reading tells us how Jesus, as the High Priest of the New Testament, surrendered His life to God His Father totally and unconditionally as a sacrificial offering for our sins – a sacrifice far beyond the sacrifices made by the poor widows.
First reading, 1 Kings 17:10-16: This particular passage is one in a collection of stories of miracles wrought by the prophet Elijah who challenged King Ahab and his cruel pagan Queen Jezebel over the issue of worship of the false god, Baal. Complementing the story of the Widow’s Mite told in today’s Gospel, the first reading explains how another poor, pagan widow, a Syro-Phoenician living in Zarephath in the territory of Sidon, in the middle of a famine and with little left for herself, shares the last of her meager resources with the prophet Elijah. As a reward for her sacrificial generosity, she receives God’s blessing for the remaining months of the famine in the form of sufficient continuing daily provisions which ensure their survival. Elijah, instructed by the Lord God and following the Near Eastern custom, has asked for hospitality in the form of food and accommodation. The widow is not unwilling but tells the prophet that she has enough for only one meal for her son and herself. Nevertheless, Elijah asks her to demonstrate her trust in his God’s provision by first giving food to Elijah himself, as the man of God. She does as he asks, and we know what happened. Her jar of meal and the jug of oil did not empty until the drought had ended. This story of the widow’s provisions, like the following story of Elijah’s raising of her son when he had died, also emphasizes the power of God’s word in the prophet’s mouth.
Second Reading, Hebrews 9:24-28: The letter to the Hebrews was written for Jewish converts to Christ, in part to help them cope with the loss of the comforts they had enjoyed from the institutions of Judaism. The Temple authorities had refused to permit early Jewish Christians to participate either in the synagogue or the Temple services. St. Paul teaches these Judeo-Christians that Jesus, alive in the community, has become the Holy of Holies and the High Priest, around which pair all Temple worship revolved. Since Jesus has replaced both the Temple and human mediators, the Christians need not go to the Temple for worship. In today’s passage, the institutions in question are sanctuary, sacrifice, and judgment. Under the Old Covenant, a priest conducted an annual ritual sacrifice in the sanctuary of the Temple, slaughtering a lamb. Paul argues that Jesus Himself has replaced the whole class of ancient priests, and that the earthly sanctuary has been made obsolete by the sanctuary that is Heaven, where Jesus the High Priest intercedes for us directly before God. Similarly, the repetitive annual sacrifices have been replaced by Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice at the end of the ages. The old sacrifices were meant to forestall an unfavorable judgment by God. The new expectation is brighter and more positive: salvation for those who eagerly await Him.
Gospel Exegesis: The context: Beginning from chapter 11 of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus confronts the Temple authorities and challenges the abuses in the “organized religion” of his time. One by one he engages in debate with the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the scribes, and the Herodians. Jesus’ overarching condemnation of the religious-political-economic establishment is summed up when he accuses the leaders of having transformed the Temple into a den of robbers (Mark 11:17). Today’s Gospel text demonstrates why all those who held traditional positions of religious power found Jesus’ presence and preaching so disturbing. Jesus’ denunciation of the scribes forms the conclusion of the series of Jerusalem conflict stories. These stories show the widening gulf between Jesus and the Temple authorities that will result in the Sanhedrin’s decision to get rid of Jesus.
The attack on pride and hypocrisy: The scribes of Jesus’ day were experts in the Law of Moses, scholars to whom people turned for a proper understanding of God’s will as revealed in Scripture. But in today’s Gospel, Jesus moves from the scribes’ erroneous theology to their bankrupt ethics, reflected in their craving for pre-eminence both in religious gatherings (in the synagogue), and in social settings (market places and banquets). Jesus publicly criticizes their behavior as a ceaseless grasping for honor. He begins by attacking the popular style of scribal dress, a fairly easy target. A first-century scribe wore a long linen robe with a long white mantle decorated with beautiful long fringes. White robes identified the wearer as someone of importance and prestige. Jesus’ observation that the scribes liked “to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces” is a reference to the tradition which dictated that common people “in the marketplace” should respectfully rise to their feet when a scribe walked past. The Talmud notes that when two people meet in the marketplace, the one inferior in knowledge of the Law should greet the other first. But the scribes began to feel that such respect was a right owed to them for their learning in the Law, and this made them arrogant and proud. Likewise, at banquets and dinner parties, when rich men invited scribes and perhaps some of their pupils as guests, they would give these men prominent seats. Similarly, the scribe’s synagogue seat of honor placed him up front with the Torah, facing the congregation. Scribes were seated on a platform facing the people, resting their backs against the same wall that held the box which contained the Torah scrolls. The problem Jesus pinpoints is that the scribes had confused the respect intended for the position they held with respect given them for their own abilities and accomplishments. Jesus also characterizes the scribes’ offering of long prayers to God, whether in the synagogue or Temple or some other highly public place, not as an attempt to seek God’s will or praise God’s Name, but as a means of asserting, and being honored for, superior piety.
Devouring widows’ houses: In verse 40, Jesus denounces the shameless profiteering of the scribes at the expense of widows. The Jewish scribes of the first century were not paid for being scribes because they were not considered as belonging to a professional, self-supporting group. Thus, despite the honor their position brought them, many scribes were downright poor, and it was deemed an act of obedience and piety to extend the hospitality of one’s goods and services, of one’s home and resources, to scribes for their support. Devouring widows’ houses is Jesus’ condemnatory description of the source of the luxurious lives led by some scribes who impoverished gullible and pious widows who volunteered to support them. The reference to “widows’ houses” could also refer to the scribes’ tendency to abuse their powers as trustees for the estates of wealthy widows. Further, these authorities were charged with distributing the Temple collections to widows and the needy. In actuality, however, some spent the funds on conspicuous consumption: long robes and banquets and Temple decorations. This is how they devoured the estates of widows. Power and position can lead even religious leaders to material greed and corruption.
Widow’s mite: According to the Mishnah (Shekalim VI. 6), there were, standing up against the wall of the Court of Women, 13 trumpet-shaped receptacles that functioned to gather the gifts of the faithful for the Temple treasury. As Jesus and his disciples sat and watched the comings and goings of those offering their gifts of support, they observed many wealthy worshipers placing significant sums into the temple treasury. But it was not until Jesus observed the tiny offering of two leptons (equivalent to a couple of pennies), made by a poor widow, that he was moved to comment on the proceedings. It was not the woman’s poverty that made her gift significant for Jesus. For him, it was the fact that this widow, alone among all the contributors lined up to give their offerings, gave her all. The very rich put in much, and the moderately well-off put in a decent amount. But all those who had gone before this widow had limited their giving by holding back a major portion of their money for their own use. This widow stood alone as the one who had turned over, as an offering to God for His use, everything she had — two leptons. Those two, almost worthless coins represented her last shred of security, her fragile earthly thread of hope for the future. With her deep desire to be an obedient servant of God, the widow gave all she had as an offering — even her future — for the sake of God. In other words, she gave herself totally into God’s hands, with the sure conviction that He would give her the support she needed.
Compliment or lamentation? Oddly, some modern Bible commentators argue that Jesus’ statement that this poor widow put in all she had, was not intended primarily as praise of the woman but was meant both as a prophetic denunciation of the members of the Temple establishment who took advantage of such little people and as the expression of His personal moral indignation at the situation. How, they ask, could Mark’s Jesus praise someone for sacrificing everything to a place and system which, even in the first century, Christians believed Jesus had replaced? According to John Pilch (The Cultural World of Jesus), speaking of the widow who put her two mites in the Temple collection box, “Jesus laments this woman’s behavior because she has been taught ‘sacrificial giving’ by her religious leaders. Jesus’ constant Gospel teaching had been grounded in a belief that religion was never to use people’s benevolence to enrich itself. Christians were to direct their generosity to the needs of others, not to enrich their parishes beyond a certain limit. Yet Mark clearly focuses on the widow’s deed. In contrast to the external signs of honor sought by the scribes, she sought only to please God, and she, not they, possessed true honor in God’s eyes. “The simple piety of this woman of no social standing is contrasted with the arrogance and social ambitions of some so-called religious leaders. This poor woman, in a daring act of trust in God’s providence, put into the treasury everything she had. Her action symbolized what Jesus would do by offering his very life to God his Father as an act of perfect obedience.
Life messages: # 1: We need to appreciate the widows of our parish: In our seemingly prosperous society, widows (and widowers), in addition to their deep grief, often suffer from economic loss from the burden of rearing a family alone and from a strange isolation from friends which often sets in soon after protestations of support at their spouses’ funerals. Let us learn to appreciate the widows and widowers of our parish community. Their loneliness draws them closer to God and to stewardship in the parish. They are often active participants in all the liturgical celebrations, offering prayers for their families and for their parish family. Frequently, they are active in the parish organizations, as well as in visiting and serving the sick and the shut-ins. Hence, let us appreciate them, support them, encourage them and pray for them.
#2: We need to accept Christ’s criteria of judging people: We often judge people by what they possess. We give weight to their position in society, to their educational qualifications, or to their celebrity status. But Jesus measures us in a totally different way – on the basis of our inner motives and intentions hidden behind our actions. He evaluates us on the basis of the sacrifices we make for others and on the degree of our surrender to God’s holy will. The offering God wants from us is not our material possessions, but our hearts and lives. What is hardest to give is ourselves in love and concern, because that gift costs us more than reaching for our purses.
# 3: We need to pour out our “whole life.” Can we, like the poor widow, find the courage to share the wealth and talents we hold? Can we stop dribbling out our stores of love and selflessness and sacrifice and compassion and dare to pour out our whole heart, our whole being, our “whole life” into the love-starved coffers of this world? (Fr. Antony Kadavil).