Readings for 32ndSunday in Ordinary Time: IKgs. 17: 10-16; Ps. 146:7-10; Heb. 9: 24-28; Mk. 12: 38-44
It has been more than a month since Pope Francis visited the United States and gave his stinging address to the U.S. Congress.
No doubt you recall the occasion. The pope used his time to call for the end of capital punishment. He identified the motivation behind the U.S.-led arms industry simply as "money" -- "money drenched in blood."
The pope also lionized:
- Abraham Lincoln who described capitalists as those who "generally act harmoniously and in concert to fleece the people."
- Martin Luther King who called the United States the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.
- Dorothy Day who rejected capitalism a "rotten putrid system" and
- Thomas Merton who described American politicians as a bunch of gangsters.
It was a masterful critique filled with irony -- polite, but devastating for anyone who was listening closely.
Unfortunately, few commentators were tuned in sufficiently to pick up the subtlety. For them Francis was a nice old man praising "the land of the free and the home of the brave," and closing with "God bless America" -- without the pundits realizing, of course, that "America" pointedly includes the pope's beloved Argentina devastated for decades by U.S. policy, and an entire continent oppressed by the United States for Francis' entire life. Like everyone in Latin America, Francis knows all of this very well.
The lesson here is that when prophets speak, we'd best be alert to nuance and implication.
That lesson is applicable to today's familiar story of the "widow's mite." It's easy to miss the point, since it's obscured by interpretations of homilists with no stomach for subtlety.
The episode comes right after Jesus and his disciples had all taken part in (and perhaps led) a demonstration against the temple priesthood and the thievery of their system from the poor. I'm talking about Jesus' famous "cleansing of the temple." That event sealed Jesus' fate. The temple priesthood would soon be offering the reward for his capture that Judas would accept.
Following the assault on the temple, Jesus continues instructing his disciples on the corruption of the Temple System. To do so, he takes a position, Mark says, "opposite" (i.e. in opposition to) the temple treasury. The treasury was the place where Jews paid the tithe required by the law as interpreted by the priesthood 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.
There are two ways for homilists to explain this incident in the context of today's Liturgy of the Word. Remember, it began with a reading from I Kings and its story of the great prophet Elijah and the widow of Zarephath.
Elijah was hungry. He encountered a single mom gathering sticks to make a fire to eat her last meal with her son. They were starving, and she had only a handful of flour and a few drops of oil to make some bread before she and her son would die of hunger. The prophet asks that instead she make him some food. Obediently, she does so. And strange to say, after feeding Elijah, the widow discovers that her flour and oil never run out. She somehow has an endless supply. She and her son are saved.
Then in today's second reading, Jesus is contrasted with the temple priesthood. The temple priests, the author of Hebrews says, were required to repeatedly offer sacrifices in the Temple year after year. In contrast, Jesus entered the heavenly "Holy of Holies" but once, offering there not the blood of bulls and lambs, but his own blood. Jesus is the true high priest.