32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Heroes for the Heroic
Readings: 1 Kings 17:10-16; Psalm 146:7, 8-9, 9-10; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44 or 12:41-44
Picture: cc tanakawho
Dear sisters and brothers, when you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? I remember having various options in mind, the usual favorites: doctor, engineer... But mostly – I’m embarrassed to say it – even though I didn’t realize it at the time, I think I just wanted to be a hero. You know, someone others would look at and then nod their heads in approval and admiration, someone people would point to and say, in tones at once reverent and enthusiastic: Yeah! What about you? Did you ever want to be a hero?
And have you ever noticed how important heroes are to us? Especially when we encounter a bad situation of some sort, have you noticed how quick we are to identify and shower praise upon extraordinarily courageous individuals, even as we denounce those we consider to be our enemies? Take the terribly tragic shooting that took place in Fort Hood, Texas this past Thursday. Within just a day or two, the media has already identified a hero: Kimberley Munley, the police officer who ended the massacre by shooting the suspect, but not before sustaining injuries herself. CNN characterizes her as a "tough woman" who patrolled her neighborhood and once stopped burglars at her house. A Facebook fan page, on which she is referred to as A Real American Hero, is reported to have attracted 1,400 members.
It’s perhaps not too surprising that we should look for heroes in a crisis. The attention and adulation that we give to them somehow helps us to bear the shock and the grief of the moment. By focusing on the heroism of some among us, we are able, at least to some extent, to change our sorrow into joy, our shame into pride. And yet, as much as our heroes help us to deal with our pain, as much as they deserve our praise, we may perhaps wonder whether something gets lost when our attention is focused exclusively on them.
Take our scripture readings for today, for example. The widow’s mite is a story that we all know very well. And our usual approach – my usual approach – is to think of the widow as a hero, a model to be praised and emulated. Painfully poor as she was, she willingly contributed all she had, her whole livelihood towards the upkeep of the Temple in Jerusalem. The rich may have donated much more in absolute terms, but she, even at great cost to herself, gave 100 percent. The widow in the first reading is just as heroic. In a time of drought and famine, even though she and her son are themselves close to starving to death, she willingly shares her food with the prophet Elijah. And what is even more worthy of praise and emulation than the widows’ heroic generosity is the attitude that motivates it. Both widows are willing to sacrifice everything, even at the risk of losing their own lives, because their trust is ultimately in the Lord. In the words of our responsorial psalm, they believe that their God is the Lord who keeps faith forever, secures justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry. Aren’t these women true heroes? Shouldn’t we be like them? In our own lives as Christians, shouldn’t we try to be just as generous, just as trusting, just as heroic?
Of course we should! And yet, isn’t there also something crucially important that gets left out when we focus only upon the widows as heroes? For, as heroic as they are, aren’t these women also themselves, in a sense, victims? Aren’t they themselves in need of a hero? Isn’t this precisely what they are hoping for from the Lord? To gain a better appreciation of this, however, we need to consider more closely the biblical context in which each of the stories is situated.
In the first reading, for example, the drought that occasions the widow’s suffering is not a random occurrence. It is the immediate result of the powerful word spoken by the prophet himself. As the mouthpiece of God, Elijah calls down a drought on the land because of the idolatrous behavior of Ahab, the king of Israel. Thus the widow – who is a foreigner living in the Sidonian town of Zarephath – is suffering because of the infidelities of the chosen people, in response to which God sends the prophet to issue a call to repentance. The Sidonian widow’s heroism is called for because the chosen people have become corrupt. And if she is a hero, then, Elijah is the hero’s hero.
We find something similar in the gospel as well. As some scripture scholars remind us, the story of the widow’s mite comes immediately after Jesus’ critique of the scribes – or at least some of them – and the prevailing system of religious practices that they administer. They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext recite lengthy prayers. In this context, Jesus may well be drawing his disciples’ attention to the widow’s contribution, not just as conduct worthy of emulation and praise – although it is surely that – but also as a state of affairs to be lamented, a problem needing to be addressed. Why, we may ask, should a poor widow, struggling to keep body and soul together, be expected to donate her very last two coins toward the maintenance of the Temple? Shouldn’t the Temple be providing for her upkeep instead? Isn’t her situation a concrete illustration of how the administrators of the Temple and the Law devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext recite lengthy prayers. In this bad situation, like Elijah before him, Jesus appears as someone sent by God to speak up for the victims and to call the victimizers to repentance, to be a hero for the heroic, even at the cost of his own life.
But is there really any difference between the heroism of Jesus and Elijah on the one hand, and that of the widows on the other? Don’t both pairs share in common a genuine generosity born of profound faith and hope in the Lord? Aren’t both pairs willing to sacrifice everything for God and their fellow human beings? What difference does it make whether we focus our attention on one or the other? An indication of an answer might perhaps be found in our second reading, which makes a clear distinction between the sacrifices offered by the high priest and that of Christ. While the high priest’s sacrifices have to be offered repeatedly, Christ’s sacrifice has been made once for all. Similarly, might we not say that, if we were to focus only on praising and imitating the heroism of the widows, without also attending to and addressing the circumstances of their suffering, then won’t their sacrifices need to be offered again and again, if not by them specifically, then by others who will take their place? For better or for worse, won’t we always need heroes like them?
In contrast, attention to the heroism of Elijah and Jesus makes us see the importance of discerning the deeper reasons why people like those widows – people caught in difficult situations not of their own making – continue to have to suffer. More than simply looking out for heroes, Elijah and Jesus show us how, as grown-up Christians, called by God to be light of the world and salt of the earth, our vocation is not just to practice heroic virtue, but also to be heroes for the heroic.
Sisters and brothers, how grown-up are we as Christians? To whom are we called to be heroes today?