God asks for a sacrifice of love

By  Fr. Scott Lewis S.J.
  • November 3, 2006
32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B)  Nov. 12 (1 Kings 17:10-16; Psalm 146; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44)

Visiting a very poor country is often a disturbing experience but it can also be moving and enlightening. Many people who are living in stark poverty practise incredible generosity and hospitality. People share with a visitor or guest what little they have and it is done with a pleasant and joyful attitude.

An awareness of the abundance of God coupled with generosity and a lack of fear can be something very powerful. But it is curious that the greater our actual abundance, the greater our fear of not having enough and our desire to preserve what we have for ourselves.

The widow of Zarephath (unnamed, as are many women in the Bible) is concerned for the well-being of her child. But she is reassured by the prophet and has faith in his words. Not only is she able to feed him and her family, the meal and oil are miraculously replenished. Generosity and sharing are powers in themselves for they rebound not only on the giver but on others as well.

The Gospels say it well: whatever we clutch on to, including our own lives, will turn to dust. But whatever we give away and share with love, including our own lives, will be transformed into something of great value. Our cultural values and our political discourse seem to be focused on protecting what we have and keeping possible competitors at bay. We face a world of dwindling resources and increasing poverty. There is a viable alternative to the ethics of self-interest and personal prosperity that seem to have so many in their grip. And that alternative is the generosity and trust of our unnamed widow. Our survival may well depend on our collective ability to live by that example.

Cloaked in the difficult symbolism of temple and sacrifice, the Letter to the Hebrews paints a picture of a true shift in human spiritual consciousness. The ancient world was no stranger to blood sacrifice, both human and animal. And gods were thought to dwell in statues and buildings. The author stresses repeatedly that Christ Himself has become the new temple in which God dwells and He has entered into heaven itself. God is now experienced within and can be worshipped in any place. More importantly, Christ put an end to bloody sacrifice by offering Himself.

The point is clear: God does not delight in blood or require it, and it has no place in the worship of God. It is a lesson that religions have not yet fully learned. The sacrifice that is asked for is that of love, following the example of Jesus. And His return is not to be dreaded, for He comes to save all who long for Him, even if they know Him by other names.

Wealth and abundance can insulate us from other people. We can and should give donations to just and worthy causes. Disasters and human need should motivate us to share what we have, and often we do. But it is all too easy to give when it does not really touch or cost us. Would we give if it meant that we had to go without something? If it meant feeding the hungry, lifting up the poor or protecting the environment, would we be willing to live a more modest or austere lifestyle? As the first part of the Gospel passage points out, even giving up the demands of the ego such as preferential treatment and marks of respect, and standing in solidarity with others is a powerful act of love and renunciation.

Again a nameless widow is our example. Jesus points out that she gave all she had to live on — her giving cut deep. All generosity is good, but that which involves the giving of self is the most efficacious and pleasing to God. Lofty pronouncements on social justice or the needs of the poor contribute little unless followed by action.

Radical generosity is needed in our world if humanity is to survive and flourish. We do not have an inherent right to our incredibly high standard of living if it is achieved at the expense of others, especially less developed nations. The personal asceticism that has always been prized by Christians is at its best when its goal is providing for the common good.

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