We must look out for each other

  • October 30, 2009
32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) Nov. 8 (1 Kings 17:10-16; Psalm 146; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44)

The poor widow of Zarephath probably didn’t know quite what to make of Elijah’s request. She was at the end of her tether — almost nothing to eat and drink and the end loomed all too near. Not only that, she was not even an Israelite nor was she a worshipper of Israel’s God. But she was a humble person with a good heart — the very definition of one who is right with God.

Choking back her despair and fear, she heeds the promise of Elijah: if she gives generously and from the heart she will not suffer loss.

The promise is fulfilled as abundance flows from generosity and sharing. This story will have a future life, for in the synagogue scene of Gospel of Luke, Luke’s Jesus refers directly to this incident to illustrate the universality of God’s generosity and kindness.

There are many ways to describe the change that Jesus accomplished by His life, death and resurrection. The author of Hebrews is attempting to explain the changes in terms of a turning of the ages and a shift in spiritual consciousness.

The whole notion of sacrifice and appeasing God has now passed away. With His death and resurrection Christ has Himself become the law. Jesus is not crucified over and over again in a sacrificial manner. We all participate and share in an event that was accomplished once and for all, an event that transcends all notions of time and place.

In the Letter to the Hebrews sacrificial language and symbolism are used to put an end to the sacrificial system. Unfortunately elements of an older sacrificial theological system have lingered far too long.

Sacrifice must not be understood as substitution or appeasement but as the price that Jesus paid for His mission of patterning a new way of living and worshipping God.

If we fail to see ourselves in the Gospel stories then we have failed to really understand its message. The Gospels are a mirror — the characters of Herod, the Pharisees, the disciples and the crowds all tell us something about ourselves. Today’s story is not about the scribes but about all of us.

Jesus was so insistent that we not use religion as a way of exercising power over others or attracting respect and honours. This renunciation of status was part of the essential core of early Christianity and yet we pay it scant heed, preferring to focus on a few hot-button issues.

The demands of the ego can taint even the loftiest spiritual aspirations and can even be destructive if carried to the extreme. Only consistent and conscious humility can prevent religion from becoming a scam.

Charity can easily become a matter of tax receipts and quest for public recognition. It can even morph into a big business and take on all the trappings and values of the secular business world.

The famous story of the poor widow’s seemingly insignificant donation is a challenge to our way of looking at the call to generosity. It is never a matter of numbers or amounts but of love and generosity. As in the story of the widow of Zarephath this widow really had nothing to give and from a strictly rational point of view her contribution did not make much sense. It is strange that often those who have the least are the most open-handed and generous. She was willing to feel the pinch and inconvenience of this offering and rested in the assurance and faith that she would be cared for and blessed with sufficient means.

Giving to charities always drops dramatically during times of economic hardship.

While this is understandable we are also challenged to walk in love instead of fear. It is a time to share more rather than less.

Love and generosity are divine principles and when exercised they ensure that all are provided for. But the greatest offering is not money but self — giving the time and energy that we might not have for the sake of those in need.

The message echoes through both testaments: we are responsible for one another — do not cling fearfully, but love with open-handed generosity.