Readings for 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time: I Kgs. 17: 10-16; Ps. 146:7-10; Heb. 9: 24-28; Mk. 12: 38-44
Last Thursday, the editors of The National Catholic Reporter (NCR) published an open letter to all bishops in the United States. The letter's topic was the fallout surrounding the clerical abuse scandal. Its theme was "it's over" -- a refrain repeated seven different times in the document.
The repetition is relevant to the Gospel readings for this 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, the episode of the "Widow's Mite." The story summarizes the attitude of Jesus towards clerical corruption in his own day -- and in our own.
After visiting Jerusalem's temple just before his own execution, Jesus concluded that Judaism as represented there had no future. His words and actions expressed his clear conclusion, "It's over!" He gives up on the temple system. His despair tempts me to give up on the Catholic Church.
Before I get to that, let me fill you in about the NCR letter and the apparent meaning of its catchphrase which implies that the Catholic Church has no more future than the Jerusalem temple Jesus cursed.
"It's over," the editors said because:
* The clerical abuse scandal has brought the church to rock bottom.
* This is a question of such rot at its heart that the corruption threatens the very identity and unity of the Catholic Church not only in the United States, but worldwide.
* The feds have now entered the picture ordering chancery officials not to destroy the paper trail they've been hiding for more than 50 years.
* Abusers and their enablers have been recognized as federal criminals.
* The bishops have nowhere left to hide. Like the king in the familiar fable the bishops and clergy all stand naked before the world; we all realize that they have no clothes. They have lost moral authority.
* Even Washington's Cardinal McCarrick abused boys and seminarians for decades.
* And the cover-ups go right to the top -- to the Vatican itself. The hastily-sainted John Paul II "let wolves roam his flock" because of his falsely inflated idea of a "heroic priesthood" to which no one can any longer subscribe.
* Blaming gay priests for the crisis is so obviously yet another diversionary attempt to block the fundamental reforms required in a clerical culture that has demonstrated a basic ignorance of human sexuality.
* So is blaming Pope Francis who alone among recent popes has exhibited the courage to confront the problem and to remove from office clerics even at the highest levels of the hierarchy.
* The only reason for belated confessions of guilt on the part of bishops is that they have at last been caught with their pants down (literally!) beginning as far back as 1985.
* Without relentless journalistic investigation, clerical abuse would have continued unimpeded and remained covered-up.
* As a result, apologies, studies, conferences, and spiritual retreats for prayer and meditation all ring hollow.
* Only very fundamental changes have any hope of saving the church.
Absent such transformation, it's over!
And that brings me to the familiar story of today's Gospel reading, "The Widow's Mite." Contrary to what you've been told, it's not about the widow's generosity. It's about her exploitation by a clergy every bit as corrupt as the popes, bishops and priests we've just been discussing.
As Mark tells it, Jesus and his friends are visiting Jerusalem for the Passover Feast during the final week of his life. They are in the Temple. On the previous day, they had all taken part in (and perhaps led) a demonstration there against the temple priesthood and its thievery from the poor. I'm talking about Jesus' famous "cleansing of the temple." Soon the temple priesthood and scribal establishment will offer a reward of thirty pieces of silver for information leading to Jesus' arrest. Judas will find himself seriously considering collecting that reward.
In the meantime, Jesus continues his on-going instruction about the corruption of the Temple System. In the episode before us, he takes a position, Mark says, "opposite" the temple treasury. The treasury was the place where Jews paid the tithe required by the law as interpreted by the priesthood that Jesus despises. It was a "flat tax" applying the same to rich and poor.
Ever class-conscious, Mark points out that "many rich people" somehow made it clear to all that they were putting in large sums. Then a poor widow came along and furtively put in a penny. Jesus calls attention to the contrast: "large sums" vs. "two small copper coins, which are worth a penny."
"It's all relative," Jesus says. "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on." Jesus then leaves the temple in disgust.
The standard way of treating this reading runs like this: (1) The widow in the Temple donated to the temple priests "all she had to live on" and was rewarded with Jesus' praise; (2) follow her example (3) donate generously to your priest and you will be richly rewarded either here, in heaven, or in both places.