Sunday, November 11, 2012

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Seeing with New Eyes

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 kphotographer

Sisters and brothers, have you ever had the occasion to revise your opinion about something or someone? Let’s say, for example, that you always thought that a certain friend of yours was a little proud or aloof, because she didn’t like to join you and the rest of your friends on your regular outings. Then, one day, you discover the reason for your friend’s apparent antisocial behaviour. She has to care for one of her children, who is in hospital with a terminal illness. On learning this, you’ll probably, quite naturally, begin to see your friend in a new light. And perhaps even treat her differently. There is a Chinese idiom that describes such situations quite well. Ling yan xiang kan (另眼相看). Literally, this means to see something or someone with another set of eyes.

I mention this, because I think that this is precisely what we need to do with those two poor widows in our Mass readings today. Both the Sidonian woman of the first reading and the woman in the treasury of the Temple in the gospel. We need to ling yan xiang kan. We need to look at them with new eyes.

First, let’s consider the woman in the gospel. How do we usually see her? Well, our usual approach–my usual approach–is to think of her as a model to be praised and imitated. For poor as she was, she willingly contributed everything she possessed, all she had to live on 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 same can be said for the widow in the first reading. She is just as heroic and worthy of imitation. In a time of drought and famine, even though she and her son are themselves close to starving to death, she willingly shares the little food she has with the prophet Elijah.

And what is even more impressive, even more worthy of our praise and imitation, is the attitude that motivates the generosity of these two women. Both widows are willing to sacrifice everything, even at the risk of losing their own lives, because they have placed all their trust in God. In the words of the responsorial psalm, they believe that their God is the Lord who keeps faith for ever, who is just to those who are oppressed… who gives bread to the hungry. So firm is their belief that God will care for them that they are willing to give everything they have for the sake of others. Aren’t these women true heroes? Shouldn’t we try our best to imitate them? In our own lives as Christians, shouldn’t we keep striving 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 see the widows only as models for imitation? Isn’t it important that we also learn to see them with new eyes? For, as heroic as they are, aren’t these women also, in a sense, victims? Aren’t they themselves in need of a hero to save them too? Isn’t this precisely what they are hoping for from God? To gain a better appreciation of this, however, we need to consider more closely the background in the Bible against which each of these stories is set.

In the first reading, for example, the widow is suffering because of a drought. And it’s important to remember that this drought is not a random occurrence. The prophet Elijah himself has caused it. Following the instructions of God, Elijah has called down a drought on the land because of the sinful behaviour of Ahab, the king of Israel, who has turned to the worship of idols. So the widow–who, by the way, is not an Israelite, but a gentile, living in the Sidonian town of Zarephath–is suffering because of the sins of God’s chosen people. The people of Israel have sinned, and the poor widow is among those who are paying the price. Her heroic sacrifice is necessary only because the chosen people have become corrupt.

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’ criticism of the scribes, who swallow the property of widows, while making a show of lengthy prayers. Against this background, Jesus may well be drawing his disciples’ attention to the widow’s generous contribution, not just as conduct worthy of imitation and praise–although it is surely that–but also as a situation to be lamented. As 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 are swallowing the property of widows, while making a show of lengthy prayers? More than just a heroic model for us to imitate, isn’t this poor woman also an oppressed victim crying out for our help? And, in this bad situation, like Elijah before him, Jesus appears as someone sent by God to speak up for the oppressed. To call the victimisers to repentance. And it is because Jesus does this, that he will end up losing his life.

Seen in this light, the two women in our Mass readings become more than just models for us to imitate. They are also victims for us to help and to defend. Just as Elijah and Jesus helped and defended them. And how crucially important are the words and actions of Elijah and Jesus! For, if not for the willingness of Elijah and Jesus to speak out and to act on behalf of them, these poor widows will have to keep suffering. And not just them, but also others like them, who may be forced to live under difficult conditions not of their own making. Like the high priest mentioned in the second reading, all such oppressed people will keep having to offer their sacrifices repeatedly, until other people are able and willing to see them in a new light. Able and willing to speak up for them. Even to sacrifice and to lay down their lives for them. As Jesus does for us. Once and for all.

And isn’t it true that people like these two widows remain with us even in our world today? We only need to have the eyes to see them. The hearts to feel for them. And the hands to reach out to them. People who may impress and inspire us with their lives of quiet selfless sacrifice on behalf of others. People oppressed by economic systems and social structures beyond their control. People who need our help, so that their sufferings, and the sufferings of others like them, can eventually come to an end.

Sisters and brothers, are there perhaps some of these people in your life too? And is it perhaps time for us to look at them with new eyes? Time for us to ling yan xiang kan today?

1 comment:

  1. The two women in this readings showed great generosity and faith in their personality. If only, their traits can be passed on throughout the centuries. I know of one lady friend who got married in her early thirties years back, instead of having her own biological children, she passed on her love to the two babies that she adopted. I was very surprised by her generous mother's love to them even until now.

    However, a contradiction to this friend of mine, a relative that I know, literally left her toddler wailing away and even warned the toddler that if she continues to wail, she will be deported to her maternal hometown. All because her kid hinders her own selfish needs, not once but numerous times. She seems to be using the kid as a stepping stone to achieve her goals.

    This two women have indeed showed me two different views of a mother's love. A mother who is full of generosity and selfless acts, to one who is selfish and intolerant of a toddler. I pray for God's mercy and love to remove her selfish desires and to show more genuine love for her toddler, no matter what.