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Friday, 6 November 2015

Homily for 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time By Fr Munachi E. Ezeogu, CSSp

I Kings 17:10-16,  Hebrews 9:24-28,  Mark 12:38-44
 Theme: The Widow’s Plight

Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa is very fond of this joke: "When the missionaries came to Africa, we had the land and they had the Bible. Then they said, 'Let us pray ...,' and asked us to close our eyes. By the time the prayer was over, they now had the land and we had the Bible." And he usually ends the joke by adding, "And I think we got the better deal." In this joke we have a substantiation of Karl Marx's criticism of the Christianity of his day as the "opium of the people," - that which puts people to sleep while the ground under their feet is taken away from them. In today's gospel Jesus warns his followers against religious leaders who propagate this kind of anaesthetic religiosity. "Beware of the scribes, who ... devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation" (Mark 12:38-40). In the second half of the gospel reading, the story of the Widow's Mite, we see a tragic example of the product of this kind of religiosity. Jesus commends the victim but condemns the victimiser.

Last week we read about the scribe who asked Jesus about the first of the commandments. In the end Jesus gave him his word of encouragement and commendation: "You are not far from the kingdom of God" (Mark 12:34). Soon after that, in today's reading, Jesus warns his followers against the scribes who were going to receive a great condemnation. What is the crucial difference between the Good Scribe who was commended last week and the generality of scribes who are condemned this week. The Good Scribe earned Jesus' approval when he agreed with Jesus that practical love of God and neighbour "is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices" (Mark 12:33). In other words, the generality of the scribes believed in "Temple before people" but the Good Scribe, by listening to Jesus, was able to arrive at the Gospel position of "people before Temple." This is the position of those on the way to the kingdom of God. The needs of flesh-and-blood children, women, and men come before the need to maintain the sacrificial regimen of the Temple.

Traditionally we have read the Widow's Mite story as a story about boundless generosity and self-sacrifice. But we should first read it in the context in which Mark wrote it, as a tragic evidence of the religious exploitation for which Jesus condemned the Temple religious establishment. Before reading the story as a model to encourage generosity to organized religion we need to read it first as a condemnation of the use of religion to exploit simple, suffering and powerless humanity. Jesus is teaching in the Temple. He has just condemned the unscrupulous scribes who devour widows' property under the pretext of religious fervour. Then he looks up and sees this widow putting "everything she had, her whole living" into the treasury and he points to her and says, "See what I mean?" The scribes never literally robbed widows' houses. But by their teaching they exploited widows by persuading them in their privation to give up even the very little they had.

It's like what happened at the World's Fair in San Francisco in 1939. One of the attractions was a pile of money said to total $1,000,000. For 25 cents, visitors were allowed to touch the money. Poor people spent their last quarter to have a momentary brush with affluence. But did that make them any richer? No, only 25 cents poorer? False ideas nourishing false hopes can rob the poor even of the little they have.

Jesus commends the exploited widow. Why? Does Jesus approve of the process that has reduced her to the state of indigence? No. Jesus praises her for her sincere and total trust in God, not for the sorry fact that the religious establishment was taking advantage of it. In the final analysis, in the kingdom of God, between the victimiser and the victimised, it is always the victimised who gets the better deal, as Desmond Tutu rightly remarked.

In the male-dominated society of New Testament Palestine, the widow would symbolise all who have no voice, no means and no power. Who would such people be today? Do we as individuals and as a church reach out to such people to help them improve their lot. Or do we only tell them to pray harder and everything would be all right, knowing quite well that it takes more than prayer to revive their fortunes? Is Christianity a powerless gospel that opiates the people and maintains the status quo or is it the good news that liberates and transforms personal and social life? We know the answer in theory. Let us show it in practice.

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