Sunday, November 8, 2015

Giving and getting: A kingdom lesson

Readings: 1 Kings 17:10-16; Ps 146:7-10; Heb 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44

The message of today's readings is pretty straightforward: trust God like the poor widow who put virtually all she had into the temple treasury, or like the widow of Zarephath learned to do during the prophet Elijah's sojourn with her and her son during a time of famine. On the negative side, the message seems to be do not be like the scribes who act very pious, but who secretly act unjustly and who will receive, to quote our Lord directly, "a very severe condemnation" (Mark 12:40). Our psalm for this Sunday contains both of these messages.

One might ask, How does our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews fit in with the positive and negative messages outlined above? I think one likely answer is that Christ gave Himself to the Father on our behalf holding nothing back. Perhaps a more recognizable way of stating this for Catholics is, He gave Himself body, blood, soul (i.e., He gave His humanity), and divinity as an offering to God on our behalf, receiving in return nothing that was not already His from all eternity. What He receives in return is us, yes, us, as hard as that is to believe. Conversely, we receive Him. God is not a means to any end. God- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit- is the very end for which we were made, redeemed, a for which we are being sanctified.

The widow in today's Gospel is the living embodiment of two parables given by Jesus in St Matthew's Gospel: "The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field" (13:44); "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it" (13:44-46).

The Widow's Mite, anonymous from the School of Rembrandt, ca 1650-1655 (Courtesy of the British Museum)

In short, where your treasure is there your heart will be. A living embodiment of this teaching is the rich young man who read about Jesus encountering several weeks ago. He went away sad because he was unwilling to part with his possessions and content himself with receiving Jesus. In his judgment it seemed like a poor exchange. Make no mistake, our attachment or detachment from wealth and possessions, especially if our attachment keeps us from helping those in need, are criteria against which we will judged.

In his insightful commentary on St Mark's Gospel, Michael Card shared a story from a rabbinic commentary on a passage from Leviticus that is relevant to Jesus' teaching in today's Gospel:
A priest rejected the offering of a handful of grain from a poor widow. That night in the dream he was commanded: "Do not despise her. It is as if she had offered her life" (155)
Keep in mind, it may well be that the priest was well-intentioned, refusing to take what he felt the poor widow could not afford to give. This is also in parallel with the episode concerning Elijah and the widow of Zarephath. I think it's a pretty safe assumption that there were families to whom the prophet could've gone in the time of famine who would've been able to provide for him with little or no threat to their own well-being. Nonetheless, Elijah went to a poor widow who was not sure she would be able to feed herself and her son beyond the day Elijah appeared at her door. In God's kingdom things are almost never as we think they ought be, which only shows us how far we are removed from that kingdom in which we hope to dwell forever.

Like the widow of Zarephath, the Lord does not promise us earthly wealth and plenty, only our daily bread, for which He taught us to pray. If one truly listens to the teaching of Jesus, earthly riches can never be mistaken as a token of having found favor in God's eyes. For many people, by no means all, riches are a curse, not a blessing, an obstacle, not a boon. We know we have come to believe that everything comes from God and belongs to God when we give from our poverty and not from our wealth, when we stop rendering to God only that we deem extraneous, only what we regard as surplus.

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