24 PENTECOST, PROPER XXVII - B - 15 MARK 12. 38-44
Today’s first reading and the gospel are lessons in stewardship, hospitality and humility as demonstrated by two different widows. In the first lesson the widow at Zarephath gave her last meal to share with the God-sent visitor, the prophet Elijah during a time of severe famine. In the gospel reading Jesus watches as a widow in the Temple at Jerusalem gives her all into the treasury. Her sacrifice was small, two copper coins, but total.
Wedged between these two examples of sacrificial giving is Jesus’ warning against hypocrisy, pomp and pretense as exhibited by some of the scribes he observed. Who were these people? And do we recognize them today?
Widows, in the time of Jesus, much like today, were poor for the most part. Certainly the widow at Zarephath, and the widow at Jerusalem fall into this class. They would not be the widows Jesus says some of the scribes seek to devour. Rather that would be the rich widows who are sometimes vulnerable and easily taken advantage of by unscrupulous individuals.
In the first lesson the prophet Elijah has predicted a devastating drought. We thought three months without significant rainfall was tough, the drought Elijah predicted, and which came to be, was three and a half years! The King at the time was Ahab. Ahab became enraged at Elijah for making such a prediction and threatened the prophet’s life.
So Elijah flees Ahab’s jurisdiction, as the Lord directs him, and finds himself in Zarephath, some ten miles south of Sidon. The Lord has sent him here to find a certain widow who will take him in and provide for him during his stay. Elijah finds her at the gate of the city gathering sticks and asks for hospitality.
He arrives at the moment when the widow’s last reserve of food is all but exhausted. Yet, in spite of her circumstances, she complies with his request to feed him believing in the promises of God, as Elijah proclaims, that “the jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.”
The “wedge” comes following Jesus having been tested by all of the religious leaders of the day: the Pharisees, Sadducees and Scribes. The scribes having just finished testing him, Jesus turns to his disciples and gives the warning. They give themselves airs, he says, and have a great reputation for piety, but are only interested in lining their pockets.
Jesus’ warning is a denunciation of their hypocrisy, their false humility and self righteousness. They liked attention and deference. At their worse they made material profit out of spiritual influence. Thus their sometimes “devouring widow’s houses.”
They were a class of religious leaders whose teaching and examples had a profound influence on others. They were a professional class, not “priests,” but welding religious authority nonetheless. Jesus rightly condemns them.
That having been said, Jesus takes a seat opposite the Temple treasury. The treasury were actually the boxes for contributions and were in the shape of trumpets. There were 13 of them arranged against the wall of the Court of the Women in the Herodian Temple. Since no Gentile could enter there, the offerings were from Jews only.
Only copper coins were allowed in the Temple. A large contribution would necessarily make a great deal of noise and trumpets would sound a fanfare when such contributions were being deposited. According to S. Mark, Jesus sits and watches people come and go making their offerings.
After observing many rich people put in large sums, Christ contrasts the rich who can afford to give plenty to the Temple, and make sure others see them doing it, with the poor widow who gave her all, two small cooper coins.
Jesus puts her gift in perspective, along with the gifts of the rich. The value of the gift cannot be set by its inherent cash value, but by what it represents for the giver. Jesus sees into the hearts of the giver and is not deceived by the difference of values.
St. Mark has given much emphasis to our Lord’s warnings against riches in his gospel thus far. Here he illustrates the converse side, his benediction of the poor. Money is so useful for religious and charitable purposes that there is always the temptation to think more of the large offerings than of the smaller ones which may yet represent a much greater, a truer sacrifice, and a more real self-denial.
Today’s lessons are clear. The widow at Zarephath, a non-Jew, gave her last full measure of meal and cup of oil as a gift to the God-sent visitor who sought her hospitality. Today’s Church likewise should view every stranger in need who comes to us seeking relief as being God-sent and as an opportunity to show forth the Love of Christ by sharing what we have with those who are less fortunate.
The widow in the treasury at Jerusalem gave her all. Her giving of her last two cooper coins did not impress the others who were there that day for no trumpets sounded because of her gift. After all two small copper coins do not make much noise. But her giving was noticed by Jesus and impressed him, so much so, that he held her gift up to his disciples as an example of true sacrifice.
In terms of our own stewardship, none of us gets off the hook by claiming “that there are people out there who have more than I do who should be supporting the church’s mission in witness and giving.” The fact is every gift given, whether large or small, is noticed by God. The true value is not in the number of dollars and cents given, but in what it represents to the giver, that is, whether it is a token or a sacrifice.
May God give us the grace to avoid the temptation to think more of the larger offerings than the smaller one, and may our own giving for the work and ministry of God’s Holy Church be sacrificial and at the same time a Thanks-giving; one that represents our personal commitment to the Age to Come and our Hope of inheriting it, through the merits of Him who died and rose again, even Jesus Christ, Our Savior. AMEN+