Saturday, November 11, 2006

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Giving and Receiving the Kingdom Way

Readings: 1 Kings 17:10-16; Psalm 146:7, 8-9, 9-10; Hebrew 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44 or 12:41-44

Sisters and brothers, we live in a world where the emphasis is placed not so much on giving or donating as it is on taking or earning. Nothing is for free. We need to work hard in order to secure a decent living. We need to compete vigorously with others in order to achieve happiness for ourselves and those whom we love.

From this perspective, however, what the two widows do in today’s first reading and gospel can seem highly impractical, even foolish. Who among us can honestly say that we give alms the way that they do? If we were truly to do so, how would we and our families survive?

How then are we to understand our readings today?

Perhaps we need to begin first by broadening the scope of our attention. More than simply being concerned with two widows and how they give alms, our readings present us with two groups of people who represent very different – even opposite – ways of giving and receiving, two very different ways of seeking after happiness.

The people in the first group include the scribes and those who are simply referred to in today’s gospel as the rich. How do they give and receive? How do the rich people in the gospel give alms? Although they may give a great deal, Jesus says they only put in money they had over. And how do the scribes get what they want? How do they seek happiness? Jesus says quite bluntly: they… take the front seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at banquets… swallow the property of widows, while making a show of lengthy prayers.

What do these people have in common? Quite clearly, they are the elite in society. They are the ones with status, wealth, power and all the advantages that come with these things. Of course, in themselves, these things are not wrong. But we may notice how, perhaps because of the privileges that they enjoy, the people in this group are quite easily led to focus only on themselves, their own needs and desires, as well as their own ability to get what their want. Even to the extent of unscrupulously taking what rightfully belongs to others. Even to the extent of trying to fool or manipulate God, and perhaps even themselves, with long prayers that mean nothing. And even when they do give alms, they do not really give as much as they invest. Their primary concern is again for themselves rather than for others. They donate perhaps only so that they might obtain tax exemption or gain a better personal or corporate reputation. All this just so that they can amass yet more money, yet more power, an even higher status in society.

The people in the second group are very different. These include the prophet Elijah and the two poor widows. What do they have in common? How do they give and receive?

At first glance, it may seem that the prophet Elijah is no different from the scribes since he too obtains what he needs from a poor widow. But when we read the background of the story in the bible, we see that Elijah does this in obedience to God. It is God who tells him to go to Zarephath and there to receive food from the widow. By doing this, God is teaching Elijah what it means to trust completely in God. Elijah receives what he needs not by grabbing or snatching or swallowing, not by relying on his own power, but by humbly receiving his daily sustenance as if from the hands of God. In this he is learning to be like the two widows.

They represent all who are poor in this world, those who have no status or power, those whom the world despises. Yet, perhaps precisely because of their weakness and poverty, these more easily come to grasp a deep truth that the rich and powerful find difficult to comprehend. They realize that true happiness is not really something that one can earn through hard work, or grab through devious and unscrupulous means. Rather true and lasting fulfillment is a gift from God. They learn what we heard in our psalm today: that it is ultimately the Lord who keeps faith for ever… who gives bread to the hungry… who sets prisoners free… who loves the just… upholds the widow and orphan.

And isn’t it because they have learnt this truth that they can be so generous with the little that they have? What they give is much more precious than food or drink or money. What they give is nothing less than their very selves, their very lives. In this way, they imitate the One we heard about in the second reading. They follow Christ himself, who doesn’t only give us food or drink or money, but offers himself. By doing this, they are able to follow Christ not into a man-made sanctuary, but into heaven itself.

Also, by doing this, they benefit not only themselves. But through their gift, through their sacrifice, they become the voices and hands and feet through which God consoles others who are sorrowing… gives bread to others who are hungry… upholds others who may be widows and orphans…

My sisters and brothers, when we reflect on our own daily lives, on the things we do to find happiness, on the ways in which we give and receive, what do we see? Do we find a rich person or a poor widow, a prophet or a scribe?

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