Today the liturgy concerns wealth and poverty, and challenges social attitudes to them as does the Church’s ‘option for the poor’ which Pope Francis reminds us is at the forefront of the needs of the world in our time.
1 Kings 17:10-16
The incident today is part of the long account of the prophet Elijah in his battle against the king Ahab who married a pagan, Jezebel, turned against the Hebrew religion and set up worship of Baal. Just before this began, Elijah prophesied a drought and went into exile. He learned that God was sending him to a poor widow to be taken care of, and this story relates the daily miracle that kept the three alive.
This psalm of praise singles out all the oppressed as examples of God’s loving care. The widow and orphan echo the Elijah story.
This reading in a series from this Letter, has a different focus and concludes the reflections we have heard on the priesthood of Jesus, comparing it to the high priest of the Law. Attention now is centred on the sanctuary where the high priest went annually to make atonement for the sins of the people. The author describes a new, more ‘real’ sanctuary which is the heavenly presence of God. After his death which was the everlasting and effective sacrifice that saves us from sin, Christ was reunited with the Father. But we in this world are not forgotten, and the Letter reminds us of Christ coming again on earth, this time not to undergo another crucifixion, but to gather all those who are ‘waiting’ for him, those who are living out their lives on earth in faith and hope.
Christ coming again is an important point of our Advent celebrations, remembering both his life on earth, but also the promise of the ‘Second Coming’ when all are to be joined in the eternity of heaven. Christ as judge is an advocate for all those in need.
Mark reports two statements of Jesus that put him at odds to common attitudes on money and prestige in his time, and equally are a contrast to so much we hear in our own times, when ‘celebrity’ is a constant talking point in the media and when famous people and corporations like recognition for any ‘philanthropy’ done with the excesses out of their wealth, and use these donations to lessen their taxes. The extent of modern publicity far exceeds the displays Jesus saw, and the wealth of billionaires is well beyond anything known in Israel a few thousand years ago. One thing that hasn’t changed is how many do not even have enough to live on.
The scribes were teachers of the law and so had a special place in the religious life of people, and this could easily lead to their desire for special honours and recognition. ‘Long robes’ – the cloaks of the learned were longer than others, and so displaying them was one way of setting themselves above. In the synagogues, the bench before the Ark of the Covenant was the place of honour. In our times, seating at the front is or on a platform has something of the same importance. In all this, Jesus sees that their motivation is not on the services they perform but on getting special treatment or admiration for their position.
‘Swallowing the property of widows’ seems about abusing hospitality that was shown by those who of limited means, taking advantage of their generosity by taking beyond what they deserved. Prayer is meant to be addressed to God, so showing off by the long prayers in public is hypocrisy, a performance meant to impress people rather than communicate with the Lord.
None of these seem like the most serious of sins but because they were done by those whose office should make them examples to others, they deserve more severe condemnation for their failures.
These words were part of a series Mark sets when Jesus was teaching in the Temple. The next account comes when he was observing a time when donations were brought in. The amounts of the wealthy look impressive – as do large donations and foundations in our times. But Jesus is aware that they come out of an abundance of possessions and finances, and will not demand any real change to their lifestyles.
How different is the case of the poor widow, one who in that society had no prospects of work and possesses only the smallest of coins. Nevertheless, out of devotion she wants to give something – and is willing to give absolutely all she has. In this way, Jesus comments, she has given far more than the others. Jesus thus challenges us to re-think how we evaluate the actions of others. The widow also, it seems to me, shows a deep trust in God for her future. No matter what our degree of wealth and present comfort, trust in God is essential.
What the two stories share is that Jesus is not impressed with the ways people want to present themselves, rather he looks to the heart. It is never safe when reading the gospels to think warning or condemnations apply only to someone else. There is in scripture always a challenge to our own response to God’s gifts.