Readings for 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time: I Kgs. 17: 10-16; Ps. 146:7-10; Heb. 9: 24-28; Mk. 12: 38-44
Last Thursday, the editors of The National Catholic Reporter (NCR) published an open letter to all bishops in the United States. The letter’s topic was the fallout surrounding the clerical abuse scandal. Its theme was “it’s over” – a refrain repeated seven different times in the document.
The repetition is relevant to the Gospel readings for this 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, the episode of the “Widow’s Mite.” The story summarizes the attitude of Jesus towards clerical corruption in his own day – and in our own.
After visiting Jerusalem’s temple just before his own execution, Jesus concluded that Judaism as represented there had no future. His words and actions expressed his clear conclusion, “It’s over!” He gives up on the temple system. His despair tempts me to give up on the Catholic Church.
Before I get to that, let me fill you in about the NCR letter and the apparent meaning of its catchphrase which implies that the Catholic Church has no more future than the Jerusalem temple Jesus cursed.
“It’s over,” the editors said because:
• The clerical abuse scandal has brought the church to rock bottom.
• This is a question of such rot at its heart that the corruption threatens the very identity and unity of the Catholic Church not only in the United States, but worldwide.
• The feds have now entered the picture ordering chancery officials not to destroy the paper trail they’ve been hiding for more than 50 years.
• Abusers and their enablers have been recognized as federal criminals.
• The bishops have nowhere left to hide. Like the king in the familiar fable the bishops and clergy all stand naked before the world; we all realize that they have no clothes. They have lost moral authority.
• Even Washington’s Cardinal McCarrick abused boys and seminarians for decades.
• And the cover-ups go right to the top – to the Vatican itself. The hastily-sainted John Paul II “let wolves roam his flock” because of his falsely inflated idea of a “heroic priesthood” to which no one can any longer subscribe.
• Blaming gay priests for the crisis is so obviously yet another diversionary attempt to block the fundamental reforms required in a clerical culture that has demonstrated a basic ignorance of human sexuality.
• So is blaming Pope Francis who alone among recent popes has exhibited the courage to confront the problem and to remove from office clerics even at the highest levels of the hierarchy.
• The only reason for belated confessions of guilt on the part of bishops is that they have at last been caught with their pants down (literally!) beginning as far back as 1985.
• Without relentless journalistic investigation, clerical abuse would have continued unimpeded and remained covered-up.
• As a result, apologies, studies, conferences, and spiritual retreats for prayer and meditation all ring hollow.
• Only very fundamental changes have any hope of saving the church.
Absent such transformation, it’s over!
And that brings me to the familiar story of today’s Gospel reading, “The Widow’s Mite.” Contrary to what you’ve been told, it’s not about the widow’s generosity. It’s about her exploitation by a clergy every bit as corrupt as the popes, bishops and priests we’ve just been discussing.
As Mark tells it, Jesus and his friends are visiting Jerusalem for the Passover Feast during the final week of his life. They are in the Temple. On the previous day, they had all taken part in (and perhaps led) a demonstration there against the temple priesthood and its thievery from the poor. I’m talking about Jesus’ famous “cleansing of the temple.” Soon the temple priesthood and scribal establishment will offer a reward of thirty pieces of silver for information leading to Jesus’ arrest. Judas will find himself seriously considering collecting that reward.
In the meantime, Jesus continues his on-going instruction about the corruption of the Temple System. In the episode before us, he takes a position, Mark says, “opposite” the temple treasury. The treasury was the place where Jews paid the tithe required by the law as interpreted by the priesthood that Jesus despises. It was a “flat tax” applying the same to rich and poor.
Ever class-conscious, Mark points out that “many rich people” somehow made it clear to all that they were putting in large sums. Then a poor widow came along and furtively put in a penny. Jesus calls attention to the contrast: “large sums” vs. “two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.”
“It’s all relative,” Jesus says. “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” Jesus then leaves the temple in disgust.
The standard way of treating this reading runs like this: (1) The widow in the Temple donated to the temple priests “all she had to live on” and was rewarded with Jesus’ praise; (2) follow her example (3) donate generously to your priest and you will be richly rewarded either here, in heaven, or in both places.
That’s a standard treatment we have all heard. However, it has severe problems. To begin with, it ignores today’s responsorial from Psalm 146. That excerpt from Psalms sets a back-drop for the entire Liturgy of the Word and provides a key for interpreting not only today’s reading, but the entire Bible. The psalm reminds us that the poor are God’s Chosen People. God’s concern for the poor is not with their generosity towards God but with God’s securing justice for them. As the psalm says, God gives food to the hungry, sets captives free, gives sight to the blind, protects immigrants, and sustains the children of single moms. God loves those concerned with justice for the poor, the Psalm says. God loves prophets like Jesus. On the other hand, God thwarts the ways of the wicked – those who, like the scribes and high priests, exploit God’s favored poor.
With all of that in mind, we are alerted to circumstances in today’s gospel story that summon us to interpret it differently from the standard line.
We are reminded that the episode takes place in an elaborate context of Jesus’ assault on the temple system. In effect, the context is Jesus’ symbolic destruction of the temple itself. Yes, there was that “cleansing” I referenced. But there was also Jesus’ prediction of the deconstruction of the building itself. “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (MK 13:1-2). Then there was that strange incident of Jesus cursing a fruitless fig tree as he was entering the temple precincts (11:12-14; 20-24). The fig tree was the symbol of Israel. Here again Jesus pronounces a judgment on an entire system that had become corrupt and forgetful of the poor who are so central to God’s concern.
That judgment is extended in Jesus’ teaching immediately before the episode of the widow’s mite. Again, Jesus takes a position “opposed” to the temple treasury and says, “Beware of the scribes . . . They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.”
With Jesus’ warning ringing in their ears, a case-in-point, a poor widow, arrives on the scene. She pays her tithe – the flat tax – and leaves penniless. Jesus can take no more. He calls attention to the hypocrisy and injustice of the whole situation and leaves the temple in disgust. For him, in the words of the NCR’s Open Letter, “It’s over!”
And that returns me to my own questions about my commitment to the Catholic Church. Increasingly and reluctantly, I’m feeling that’s over too. Having just moved to the Northeast (Westport, CT), I’ve been searching for a community that honors the progressive teachings of the Second Vatican Council (1962-’65) – still the church’s official teaching – with its emphasis on social justice, engaged homilies, ecumenism, and vibrant liturgies.
So, I did an online search for “progressive Catholic Churches near Westport.” The search came up empty – except for a site denouncing progressive Catholicism. Nonetheless, a friend directed me to a church in Norwalk (a 15-minute drive from my new location). I joined a men’s group that meets in the church basement each Saturday morning at 7:00 to discuss the next day’s liturgical readings. However, I soon discovered that one of the ground rules for discussion is “No politics!”
That so leaves me out! The world is burning. And critical, liberationist readings of the Jesus tradition offer perhaps our best hope of putting out the raging fire. Where else but church do hundreds of people come together in every community across the country to ponder questions of goodness, truth, and their relationship to Ultimate Reality? Yet good-willed men are told: Don’t connect this with that.
Until that sort of thing changes, for me it is indeed over. And in leaving in disgust, I’m following the example of Jesus himself.