1st Kings 17:10-16 Hebrews 9:24-28 Mark 12:38-44
The love of God for the poor and marginalized in society is a major theme in the Old Testament scriptures. It comes from the reality that from the time of Abraham and Sarah in the Book of Genesis, through the adventures of the Israelites as slaves in Egypt, and then as freed former slaves wandering in the wilderness, and again as new occupants of the land beyond the Jordan River – they were new-comers and without normal, natural rights and power. It was the love and power of their saving God alone which helped them survive, and eventually thrive. Subsequent to their “taking possession” of the Land of Promise, they were repeatedly saved from themselves when time and time again their leaders (e.g., Kings Saul, David, and Solomon, and Solomon’s heirs, and the temple priests and the royal princes) fell into the ordinary weaknesses of human power and status and forgot the genuine principles of God-like truthfulness, integrity, holiness, humility, generosity, compassion, forgiveness, gratitude, and such. Ultimately, the unthinkable occurred: Jerusalem fell, the temple was destroyed, the Kingdom of Judah was no more, and God’s Chosen People were taken from their holy land into slavery in a foreign, unholy land.
But, God’s fidelity and loving-kindness towards, and repeated forgiveness of, the People was THE divine hallmark. The needy and marginalized were of among the greatest concerns of this God of Love because he was also the God of Justice. Love and justice are inextricably tied together in this God’s covenant, so much so that without justice there can be no genuine love. Such is the background of today’s remembrance in the First Book of Kings which reports the exploits of the great prophet Elijah. Elijah was not a “book prophet” as Isaiah, Amos and many others would be. His ministry is recounted among the stories of the kings of Israel and Judah who succeeded Solomon and before the fall of both kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Elijah had the particular task of keeping paganism from creeping into Jewish religious life. Before today’s text, Elijah had predicted a drought in the whole land as a demonstration of the power of the God of Abraham (versus the pagan god Baal) and as a persuasive deed by which to get the attention of the king (Ahab) and the Jewish people. They ought to reflect, repent, and return to a more thoughtful and serious engagement of the Torah Covenant to which they belong. A consequence of this drought was that even the “little people”, i.e., those who were innocent of the wrongdoing, were made to suffer along with the leaders. Indeed, the little people always suffer much more than the leaders who have all the privileges of wealth and power at their disposal. King Ahab probably missed no meals and suffered no want. But, the poor widow and her son were at their last meal when Elijah imposes upon them. His wielding of divine power was performed as a sign of God’s affection for just such as the widow and her son. God is described here as the God of Providence as well as the God of Justice, even miraculously so.
Today’s Gospel narrative involves no miracle, but remembers Jesus’ observation and reflection upon the generosity of the little people in his own day, some nine centuries after Elijah’s ministry. By his time the Jerusalem Temple had been destroyed and rebuilt, and had become again the center of both Jewish religious life and of social services. In the Temple precincts, people saved their excess wealth and made contributions for the poor. The Temple staff dispensed aid to the needy from among its reserve for them during hard times, so much so that the Temple had become a sign of God’s Providential justice and love. Jesus pointed out the example of a poor widow who contributed to the Temple’s charitable storehouse not from her excess, but from her substance, i.e., from what she had to live on. Her generosity meant that she would have less to eat herself precisely in order that others would have at least something to live on. Jesus was subtly critiquing and chastising those among the wealthy who saved their surplus instead of sharing it, even while being aware of the dire needs of so many others around them. Jesus was teaching a lesson about justice rather than about charity. He (and his culture) understood that the wealthy had been entrusted by God with the means to aid and assist those who had blessed not enough to thrive. Among their purposes in life was to seek ways to give to those in need not merely out of pity, but out of the justice which human dignity requires. Jesus admired the poor widow who shared significantly no matter how difficult so that others would be afforded some of the dignity which compassionate justice provides. Jesus’ praise went to the one who gave out of justice, who was first of all thankful for blessings received, and who appreciated that genuine gratitude should leads to true compassion and justice. As Luke’s Gospel has Jesus say, “Woe to you rich ...!” The widow realized her poverty relative to those others in greater need, made her rich enough to have something to share. She might have asked herself as we must ask ourselves: Am I rich? Am I grateful? Am I compassionate? Am I just? Or not?!?! How do I measure? How to I truly believe? [For a 20th Christian Century reflection on the idea of Gospel Social Justice read the Second Vatican Council’ Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), Articles 23 through 32. This is an extensive, nuanced, and persuasive elaboration on Jesus’ reflection in today’s Gospel text.]
The text from the Letter to the Hebrews hints at an early Jewish-Christian image of the kingdom of Heaven. While Jewish spirituality would have described the Jerusalem Temple and the Torah as copies of God’s true temple and Torah in Heaven, the letter’s author holds that it is Jesus’ Paschal death and resurrection which has replaced the earthly Temple and its sacrifices by means of one, once-and-for-all, eternal sacrifice for forgiveness and redemption. There has been great theological debate over what is called the “repeatability” of the Sacrifice of the Mass, stemming particularly from the early days of the Protestant Reformation in Europe. The Catholic Tradition holds that we repeat the Eucharist precisely in keeping Jesus’ own command at his Last Supper, that whenever we “do this”, that we “Do this in remembrance of me [Jesus].” We are not repeating his crucifixion over and over again. We are repeating his prayer of thanksgiving (Eucharist) and blessing, the prayer embodied by the Passover Seder meal in which Jesus (and all of Judaism) remember and give thanks for the saving power of God demonstrated at the first Passover. Sacramental Christians (Catholic and Orthodox) hold that this Eucharist celebrated in memory of Jesus as he entered his Paschal Mystery, is a continuation of just such an on-going thanksgiving. Jesus died on the cross once and for all. We tie the Eucharistic Passover Supper of Jesus inextricably to his once-and-for-all death on the Cross. Indeed, for in the Paschal Mystery of Jesus the Redeemer, “sacrifice” has a dual meaning. The “Sacrifice on the Cross” was the sacrifice by which the sacrificial victim was destroyed so as to be totally given to God. The “Eucharistic Sacrifice” of the Last Supper was and still is a ceaseless sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. While the Sacrifice on the Cross is UNrepeatable, the Eucharistic Sacrifice IS repeatable. It is the very constitution of genuine Gospel Christianity. Without the Eucharist one really cannot have the full Gospel fellowship taught by Jesus and proclaimed by the Church since Pentecost! So, Christians celebrate the Eucharist not merely in hope that Christ will someday save us in the future, but rather in confident assurance that Christ’s Paschal Mystery already has saved us in the here and now! We are good not in order to earn redemption, but as gratitude for Paschal Redemption already lovingly given and real!
Again, we engage this mystery by questions: am I thankful because I have already been saved? Am I ethical and generous because I have already been loved by God? OR am I good because I am afraid of just punishment? Am I generous because I want to appear to be better than I am? (“How little can give and get away with it?”) True Christianity demands hard thinking and hard work about how to live the Gospel as an ever-present way of life. Am I truly alive in the Gospel OR am I simply keeping up appearances?
God save me from my own fears and selfishness! God help me to love generously and wisely and justly!