Readings for 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time: IKgs. 17: 10-16; Ps. 146:7-10; Heb. 9: 24-28; Mk. 12: 38-44
It has been more than a month since Pope Francis visited the United States and gave his stinging address to the U.S. Congress.
No doubt you recall the occasion. The pope used his time to call for the end of capital punishment. He identified the motivation behind the U.S.-led arms industry simply as “money” – “money drenched in blood.”
The pope also lionized:
- Abraham Lincoln who described capitalists as those who “generally act harmoniously and in concert to fleece the people.”
- Martin Luther King who called the United States the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.
- Dorothy Day who rejected capitalism a “rotten putrid system” and
- Thomas Merton who described American politicians as a bunch of gangsters.
It was a masterful critique filled with irony – polite, but devastating for anyone who was listening closely.
Unfortunately, few commentators were tuned in sufficiently to pick up the subtlety. For them Francis was a nice old man praising “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” and closing with “God bless America” – without the pundits realizing, of course, that “America” pointedly includes the pope’s beloved Argentina devastated for decades by U.S. policy, and an entire continent oppressed by the United States for Francis’ entire life. Like everyone in Latin America, Francis knows all of this very well.
The lesson here is that when prophets speak, we’d best be alert to nuance and implication.
That lesson is applicable to today’s familiar story of the “widow’s mite.” It’s easy to miss the point, since it’s obscured by interpretations of homilists with no stomach for subtlety.
The episode comes right after Jesus and his disciples had all taken part in (and perhaps led) a demonstration against the temple priesthood and the thievery of their system from the poor. I’m talking about Jesus’ famous “cleansing of the temple.” That event sealed Jesus’ fate. The temple priesthood would soon be offering the reward for his capture that Judas would accept.
Following the assault on the temple, Jesus continues instructing his disciples on the corruption of the Temple System. To do so, he takes a position, Mark says, “opposite” (i.e. in opposition to) the temple treasury. The treasury was the place where Jews paid the tithe required by the law as interpreted by the priesthood 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.
There are two ways for homilists to explain this incident in the context of today’s Liturgy of the Word. Remember, it began with a reading from I Kings and its story of the great prophet Elijah and the widow of Zarephath.
Elijah was hungry. He encountered a single mom gathering sticks to make a fire to eat her last meal with her son. They were starving, and she had only a handful of flour and a few drops of oil to make some bread before she and her son would die of hunger. The prophet asks that instead she make him some food. Obediently, she does so. And strange to say, after feeding Elijah, the widow discovers that her flour and oil never run out. She somehow has an endless supply. She and her son are saved.
Then in today’s second reading, Jesus is contrasted with the temple priesthood. The temple priests, the author of Hebrews says, were required to repeatedly offer sacrifices in the Temple year after year. In contrast, Jesus entered the heavenly “Holy of Holies” but once, offering there not the blood of bulls and lambs, but his own blood. Jesus is the true high priest.
The standard way of treating these readings runs like this: (1) The widow of Zarephath gave the Holy Man all she had to live on and was materially rewarded as a result; (2) the widow in the temple donated to the temple priests “all she had to live on” and was rewarded with Jesus’ praise; (3) follow the examples of the widow feeding Elijah and the widow giving her “mite;” (4) donate generously to your priest (a successor of the Great High Priest in Hebrews) 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 the liturgical response to the Elijah story taken 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 readings, 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 Elijah and Jesus. On the other hand, God thwarts the ways of the wicked – those who, like the scribes and high priests (as well as members of the U.S. Congress), exploit God’s favored poor.
All of that represents a “red thread” running through the entire Judeo-Christian tradition. It offers us a key for interpreting the story of Elijah as well. It changes the emphasis of the story from the widow’s generosity, to God’s provision of food for the hungry and God’s concern for the children of single mothers.
With that key in mind, we are alerted to circumstances in today’s gospel story that summon us to interpret it differently from the standard treatment.
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” (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.” As scripture scholar, Ched Myers points out, Jesus was probably referring to the practice of turning over to scribes the estates of deceased husbands. The surviving wives were considered incapable of administering a man’s affairs. For his troubles, the scribe-trustee was given a percentage of the estate. Understandably fraud and embezzlement were common. In this way, religion masked thievery from society’s most vulnerable.
With Jesus’ accusation 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 storms out of the temple.
According to this second interpretation, Jesus is not praising the generosity of the widow. Instead, he is condemning the scribes, the priests, the temple and their system of flat taxation. Jesus’ words about the widow represent the culminating point in his unrelenting campaign against hypocrisy and exploitation of the poor by the religious and political leadership of his day.
That was Pope Francis’ point too in his address to the U.S. Congress: In effect he came to the defense of the widow’s impoverished counterparts on death row or living under the threat of bombs and drones proliferated by an arms industry motivated by worship of money drenched in blood.
In effect, Pope Francis berated the gangsters arrayed before him – every one of them guilty of fleecing the poor, destroying their homes and fields – all to support a system as rotten and putrid as the one Jesus symbolically deconstructed.
As Mark has Jesus saying, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear!” (MK 4:9)