Saturday, November 10, 2018

Between Fighting Elephants & Trampled Grass

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Picture: cc Gaurika Wijeratne

My dear friends, have you ever seen elephants fighting before? I myself have not. But do you know what happens when they do? According to an ancient African proverb, when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. I recently saw a tragic example of this in a news report on the BBC. Which showed heartbreaking scenes of severely malnourished children in a hospital in Yemen. They were reduced to skin and bone. Suffering from starvation. And their pitiful mothers could do nothing but look on helplessly and cry. They were starving because there was a famine. And the cause of the famine is, of course, the ongoing civil war in Yemen. A war being sponsored by foreign powers.

When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. This is true not just of military conflicts. As you know, some say that the current trade war between the US and China will have a significant negative impact on smaller Asian countries. Nor is it only on the international stage that these things happen. For example, which of us can deny that when marriages break down, and parents divorce, it is often the little children who are most affected?

When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. I mention this because I think it can help deepen our appreciation for our Mass readings today. At first glance, their message for us seems clear enough. The readings obviously inspire in us a word of admiration and praise. Praise for the incredible generosity of two poor widows. One in the first reading, who shares her last scraps of food with a hungry prophet. And the other in the gospel, who contributes all her meagre savings to the Temple in Jerusalem. Admire them. Praise them. Imitate them. This is what our readings seem to be telling us. Which is fine and good and true. And yet, there is more. What is this more?

When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. We find this in our readings too. Why, we may ask, is the poor widow and her son starving in the first reading? Why is there a famine in the first place? Like the situation in Yemen, the famine in the first reading is the result of war. Not a military conflict, but a spiritual struggle. The reading is taken from chapter 17 of the first book of Kings. Earlier, at the end of chapter 16, we’re told that, after marrying Jezebel, the daughter of the king of Sidon, Ahab, the king of Israel, had led his subjects into idolatry. He began worshipping Baal, the god of his new wife. The god of the Sidonians.

Immediately after that, Elijah, the prophet of God, is sent to Ahab to announce a famine. A famine not just in Israel, but also in Sidon, the territory of Baal. A famine that is the result of Ahab’s idolatry. A famine that is the Lord God’s way of waging war against Baal, in order to win back the hearts of the people of Israel. In order to recall them from idolatry to true worship. From death to life. So that, if the widow and her son are starving in the first reading, it is because there is a battle raging between God and Baal. Between true worship and idolatry.

When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. The situation is perhaps a little less obvious in the gospel. But here too, we find something similar. Why, we may ask, should a poor widow, who owns no more than two small coins, be expected to contribute to the maintenance of the Temple? Shouldn’t the Temple be contributing to her upkeep instead? Jesus gives us the answer in the first paragraph of the reading. Where he scolds those in charge of the Temple, for (swallowing) the property of widows, while making a show of lengthy prayers.

Despite their outward display of piety, the scribes in the gospel are actually no different from Ahab. They have fallen into idolatry. They worship the false gods of money and popularity. And, as a result, the poor suffer. Like her counterpart in the first reading, the widow in the gospel is herself a casualty of a spiritual conflict. A victim of the structures of sin.

When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. If all this is true, then in addition to inspiring a word of praise for the incredible generosity of two widows, the readings also serve as a cry of lament for the injustice that’s done to them. Lament over the tragic circumstances that cause them to suffer. Situations far beyond their control, powerless as they are. Situations caused by the sinfulness of others.

And it’s difficult to deny that situations like these are to be found not just in biblical times. They continue even now. People forced to flee their homes, as much by the inequalities of our global economy, as by the ravages of war. Our own beloved Catholic Church scarred so terribly by a shameful history of the sexual abuse of children and the attempts to cover it up.

When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. Thankfully, that is not all we find in our readings today. For, more than just a word of praise and a cry of lament, the scriptures also contain a message of hope. Hope that is found especially in the merciful actions of God, who upholds the widow and orphan but thwarts the path of the wicked. Unlike a careless elephant, God doesn’t just trample mercilessly on the grass. On the contrary, God makes every effort to be present to it and to protect it. To accompany it and to care for it.

In the first book of Kings, God sends the prophet Elijah not just to provide for the widow of Sidon, but also to confront the wicked king of Israel. In the gospel, God sends Jesus, God’s Only Begotten Son, not just to point out the hypocrisy of the scribes and the generosity of the widow, but also, to match and to outdo that same generosity with his own. By eventually laying down his life on the Cross to save us from our sins. Or, in the words of the second reading, to do away with sin by sacrificing himself.

More than just a word of praise and a cry of lament, our readings contain for us a message of hope in the undying love and mercy shown to us in Christ. A message of hope that is also, at the same time, a call to action. A call not just to imitate the generosity of the widows, but also to receive for ourselves, and to share with others, the merciful love of God. To learn from the examples of Elijah and Jesus, how to recognise situations of injustice. And, when necessary, to speak out against them. Injustice in our world and in our society. In our schools and in our workplaces. In our Church and, yes, even in our own homes… A call also, in so far as we are able, to accompany and to care for the casualties of conflict. If not in person and through material assistance, then at least in thought and in prayer.

When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.

My dear friends, what must we do, as individuals and as a community, to be ever more mindful of the helpless grass that’s so often and so easily trampled by fighting elephants today?

No comments:

Post a Comment