Immaculate Conception and St. Dominic, Stone

Including Sacred Heart Church, Eccleshall
 

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32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B

Just a thought

The story read at the beginning of the Liturgy of the Word today is one of the best known passages of the Cycle of Elijah’ which tells of the prophet’s adventures and miracles. He vigorously condemned the impiety of King Ahab and his wife Jezebel who favoured the worship of local gods, called Baals, and who sought to destroy all of Yahweh’s prophets. Elijah has announced to the king that there will be a drought of several years, a punishment decreed by God for Ahab’s evil conduct. At the Lord’s command, Elijah immediately flees and takes refuge near a stream where God-sent ravens bring ’him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening.’ But owing to the drought, the stream runs dry. Then God tells Elijah to go to Zarephath, a Phoenician port some ten miles from Sidon: there he will find a widow who will see to his survival. Today we read of this meeting.

From the start, the narrative is on the level of faith. Elijah has to have total trust in God to seek shelter in this region governed by Jezebel’s father, Ethbaal, who has an implacable hatred for the prophet. At the same time, he must be convinced of the power of the Lord in order to hope that a pagan women of this region will come to the aid of this baal-basher. She worships the Baal’s . But Elijah sets out on his journey to Zarephath. At the entrance of the city, he sees a woman— easy to spot because of her mourning clothes — who is gathering wood. She must be the one the Lord has designated. He calls to her: “Please bring me a small cup of water to drink” This is a service no-one refuses to render in hot climates. To ask for water is a simple way to start a conversation with the people one meets. Depending on the way they respond, one can judge their disposition and, eventually, one may ask for more than water. But Elijah does not wait. As the woman goes to fetch the water he says: “Please bring along a bit of bread…” “As your Lord God, lives,” she answered, “I have no baked bread but only a handful of meal in my jar and a little oil in a jug. I am just gathering a stick or two to go and prepare this for myself and my son to eat. And then we shall die.” (Dire times indeed!) This tragic situation does not shake Elijah’s faith. God told him that a widow would help him. He knows this woman’s extreme destitution. Without any doubt, the Lord will give her the means necessary to fulfil her charitable mission. Therefore, Elijah repeats his request, adding to it an extraordinary promise: “For thus the Lord God speaks, the God of Israel: Jar of meal shall not be spent, jug of oil shall not be emptied, before the day when the Lord sends rain on the face of the earth.” Nothing more is needed for the poor widow to believe what the stranger tells her in the name of the God of Israel, more powerful than the local Baal. She immediately puts her trust in God, and carries out what the man [Elijah] whose word transmits the Lord’s oracle, has requested. She was able to eat for a year, and he and her son as well; the jar of meal was not spent nor the jug of oil emptied, just as the Lord had foretold through Elijah.’ One might say she was repaid for her faith ‘One hundred times over’ as Jesus promised in the Gospel of the Twenty-eighth Sunday. What a marvellous story! The most admirable part is not the miracle itself, but the faith of the protagonists, especially the poor widow’s. Elijah of course, believed in the Lord; but the Lord had spoken to him and, by the bank of a stream, had just given him a signal of proof of his power and solicitude. But the woman was a pagan. She believed God’s word — an unlikely promise — transmitted by an unknown person — a stranger who spoke to her in the name of a God locked in combat with the Baal she served. On this word, she risked her life and her son’s life too, she gave everything she had. This is an admirable faith on the part of a simple and poor woman, and it reminds us of all those who, forgetting themselves, accomplish the acts of mercy that God expects.

We now cut to today’s Gospel scene. Keeping the account of the prophet Elijah, telling of a great famine afflicting the country, and of a poor widow — a pagan — who did not hesitate to give her all to a stranger, we come to Jesus’ observation of another widow. Jesus, sitting outside the treasury, sees a poor widowed woman making an offering of two small coins — ’her whole livelihood.’ While rich people were leaving large sums in the collection box: ’He sat down opposite the treasury and observed how the crowd put money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small coins, the equivalent to a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “I tell you solemnly, this poor widow has put in more than all who have contributed to the treasury; for they have all put in money they had over, but she, from the little she had has put in everything she possessed, all she had to live on.”’ One does not have to look far to see the similarity between the two narratives: both women giving everything they have — putting their total faith in God. The money deposited in the treasury was not destined for the poor but for the upkeep of the Temple worship. It was therefore, in some way, an offering directly made to God. Here, we must be clear in our understanding of what is said. Jesus does not declare without value the offerings of rich people — ’large sums’ The contrast is drawn between the surplus the rich contribute from, and the very ’livelihood’ that the widow gives — one — a portion of one’s abundance — the other — the total giving of one’s life, so to speak. The rich honour God — of course they do; but the poor woman consecrates herself entirely to God, by her offering — she wholly entrusts herself to God.

Perhaps this is what incensed Jesus as he sat outside the Temple as He was want to do after teaching there in the days before his Passion. In this high place of worship and devotion — this place where the widow had given her all; He was able to observe the behaviour of all who attended. Like everybody, He particularly noticed the Scribes who assiduously frequented the Temple, their home and powerbase as it were. They went back and forth within the sacred precincts and surroundings — these ’official persons’ to whom one bows, to whom one gives the right of way and whom one approaches only with reverence. Their gathering in a single place can give rise to various feelings: some people are impressed by this display and are delighted to have the opportunity to attend such a show; others seem to regard them with curiosity and amusement; still others consider them vainglorious. These diverse reactions can very often go hand in hand — and can be a mixture of all three. ’This is bound to happen in this kind of place’ It happens that one’s attention is drawn to what connects/attracts and interprets it. Nothing escaped Jesus, Who so often gave proof of acute sensitivity and finesse of Spirit in His observations. But in contrast to us, He knew what was within each heart and could judge the secret intentions and motivations of the actions and attitudes. This is true of those who were walking about in the Temple, the possible discrepancy between what was and what appeared to be. Also, Jesus discerned the significance of a furtive gesture that escaped others notice. From his observations, he derived the teaching that the Gospel relates today — it was these latter vainglorious people that incensed him so much: “Beware of the Scribes who like to walk about in long robes, to be greeted obsequiously in the market squares, to take the front seats in the Synagogues and the places of honour at banquets; these are the men who swallow the property of widows while making a show of lengthy prayers. The more severe will be the sentence they receive.” The Lord is obviously angry by what He sees. The invective is cutting, and no commentary can blunt its vehemence — He sees a widow give her all in the form of two small coins and those who will receive it, He sees posturing and lording it over people. On the other hand, Jesus does not say that all Scribes are the same. He has not forgotten that He has just seen a Scribe to whom he said: “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” Neither does He suggest that all Scribes have these defects and behave in an equally shocking manner — but he tells us to “Beware” of those who are. The evangelist does not record all these warnings to arouse our indignation toward people long dead — but rather, to make us aware of people to whom these reproaches apply. — and that is not necessarily only others, we can all be susceptible to gaining these traits. We are all capable of courting flattery by showing off in our positions in life — whatever they may be. We are all exposed to all sorts of dangers, and so we must pray earnestly for protection. We should not strive to be noticed but put flattery aside and present ourselves before God rather than before human beings and give God our all — for He knows our heart. The Master tells us if we want to be great then we should become the least of all. We have the greatest example of this in Jesus; for God Who is Almighty and needs nothing from us — out of love for us, sent His Son into the world for the salvation of all — in order to realise this mission, the Lord Jesus, our High Priest, has of his own free will, offered the sacrifice of his life to his Father — he has given his all, for us his creatures: ’Though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness, and found in human appearance…’ (Phil 2:6-7)

For you know the gracious act of the Lord Jesus Christ, that for your sake he became poor although he was rich, so that by his poverty you might become rich.’ (2 Cor 8:9)

 

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