Saturday, November 7, 2009
Image: The Widow's Mite by James Tissot (Click on image for larger version)
(Readings for today's liturgy)
The church offers an option in the lectionary today
to read a shorter form of this gospel story.
The shorter form is basically the second half of what we just heard,
the part about the widow.
the longer form includes Jesus' condemnation of the scribes.
We heard the longer form because what Jesus says about the widow
can only be fully understood
when we know what he says about the scribes who
“devour the houses (the property, the savings) of widows.”
The scribes were those learned in the ways of the law
and they were honored and respected for their knowledge –
but they often took advantage of their position.
They made a fine living and enjoyed high social status
often at the expense of others, including the poor.
Let's consider this question, then:
Is Jesus commending the widow
for giving her last two coins to the temple treasury -
or - is he lamenting a structure and its leadership
leaving the widow obligated to offer even her last penny?
It’s easy to praise the widow for being generous
and overlook a possible failure on her part to care for her own welfare -
and likely that of her children.
Likewise, it’s easy for us to concentrate on the widow
and fail to see how Jesus is drawing our attention
to the scribes and their selfishness.
And it’s also easy to see why pastors over the centuries
have preached on the generosity of the widow
and not on the methods the scribes used to "guilt her" into giving.
(If you think that’s an exaggeration,
consider the fact that the lectionary's shorter version
omits any mention of the scribes and Jesus condemning them!)
Taken alone, the story of the widow is the perfect platform
for encouraging sacrificial giving
- and not a word about the hypocrites who burdened and used her.
The church still has its scribes:
we are many and I am one of them!
Remember the description of the scribes?
Long robes... greetings on the street... best seat in the temple...
best table at banquets... reciting lengthy prayers...
I’m one of the scribes - and there's a whole hierarchy of others.
(And just as it was 2,000 years ago - all the scribes are male.)
But in the church, all hierarchy
is meant to be one of mutual service - not dominance or opportunity.
Together, we are brothers and sisters, not masters and servants.
For that reason one of the pope’s formal titles is this, in Latin:
servus servorum Dei -
that is, the pope is the servant of the servants of God.
As servants of one another, the pope the servant of us all,
we are called to share in providing for one another,
according to our needs,
beginning with those whose needs are greatest:
not with my own needs, but with the needs of others.
Jesus rightly condemns the scribes' abuse of their privilege:
any privilege proper to the scribes (in any age)
is theirs only for the benefit of serving others.
Jesus also rightly lifts up the example of the widow, by comparison,
to teach how much greater is any service, any gift we offer
when it comes not from the closets and cupboards
of what we can easily spare
but rather from our own want, our own need:
a giving that requires we “go without”
so that others may "go with" what they need.
It’s good for us to hear these scriptures as “the holidays” draw near.
Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year’s
frame a season of wanting, needing, giving, sharing and, often,
a fair amount of self-indulgence.
All this while those truly in need
wait for us who have more than we need
to be generous, at least from our surplus if not from our want.
The gospel today calls us to be a people of mutual service,
not serving ourselves first (as the scribes did)
but serving first those whose needs are greatest.
We go now to the altar where we remember every week
the sacrificial giving of Jesus
who gave everything he had - his life -
so that our need for mercy might be satisfied.
We name him Prince of Peace, King of Kings and Lord of Lords:
but in the hierarchy of his own table
he makes himself our Servant, the Servant of the servants,
and invites, indeed commands us
to serve one another as he has served us.
Posted by Austin Fleming at 7:22 PM