Saturday, November 7, 2009

Homily for the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time


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.

-ConcordPastor

8 comments:

Novo said...

Thank you! I very much appreciate your inclusion of the first part of this gospel about the scribes as an integral part of the reading as well as your commentary on it This does frame the message in a different way and, I think, offer encouragement for the generosity of the Faithful.

Anonymous said...

There is so much in your interpretation, Father, that I've never heard before. "A structure and its leadership" leaving the widow obligated to offer even her last penny. The evil all-male scribes... and hierarchy. From the simple sacrificial love of God (which most everyone uses as a theme) to a feminist/liberation deconstruction? I never before got a whiff of the widow being "guilted" into her praiseworthy giving, or of her leaving her children destitute. Why stray into these conjectured areas when the plain meaning of the text is rich in value? I believe here --as with the gospel on marriage a few weeks ago -- you somehow are missing the essential point.

Irish Gal

christine said...

Maybe, Irish Gal, the "plain" meaning of the the text, was not intended. Isn't that the beauty of what each pastor preaches? Preaching of what he believes Jesus intended us to hear??? Maybe this is what concordpastor believes is a different perspective. I don't believe he's saying this is actually what it means ... but what it "could" mean.

I, for one, like his different perspective.

ConcordPastor said...

Yes and no, Christine... each preacher is charged with breaking open the Word so that God's people can be nourished by it. It's not so much about what the preacher believes - it's about what the Word speaks.

I've never before preached on this text as I did this weekend, and over 36 years of preaching, I've had this text to preach about a dozen times. I often consult the work of John Pilch whose expertise is on first century middle eastern culture, especially with regards to the communities with whom Jesus interacted. It's very important and helpful for us to understand the context in which the story of Jesus was originally preached and finally written down. Pilch writes about the class system of the time and the ways in which the scribes abused that.

When you look at the longer form of the day's gospel as one piece it's hard to miss the connection between Jesus' condemnation of the scribes and the story of the widow. As I preached, it's impossible to understand fully what Jesus says of the widow if we don't consider what he said of the scribes.

Interesting, isn't it, that many Christians are familiar with the image of the "widow's mite" but many would not be familiar with the image of the "scribes devouring the houses of widows" - and yet both images are part of the same scene in the scriptures. No doubt about it: we need to grapple with what Jesus says of the scribes and there can be a little "scribe" in all of us (or even a lot!).

I was pleased to use the pope's beautiful title as an image of what true hierarchy is about and careful not to avoid the unmistakable similarities between the scribes and those, including myself, who are their contemporary colleagues. The temptations facing the scribes in Jesus' time face today's "scribes" as well.

Looking at the whole of my homily, Christine, I think you'll see that in addition to holding the scribes accountable, in the end I point to Jesus upholding the value and virtue of the kind of giving the widow offers and, in the end, I tried to call us to that same kind of giving, modeled most perfectly in the sacrificial offering of Christ.

My Monday Morning Offering picks up the same theme - the offering up of those realities we find most difficult to let go.

christine said...

Thanks - I understand more fully now.

Anonymous said...

Concord Pastor, your ability to break open the word in ways that perhaps we haven't thought of before is a testament to how seriously you take your role as a preacher. I for one am grateful that you research the readings with an eye to expanding our knowledge of the Bible, biblical times and biblical personalities. Your brief introductions to the Sunday readings are also very helpful in setting the historical context for the readings.

Rosemary

Anonymous said...

Concord Pastor, Those context-setting introductions that you read out before the official readings each Sunday... They are from the St. Louis Jesuits, are they not?


Irish Gal

ConcordPastor said...

The introductions to the readings that I use are the work of the late Bishop Kenneth Untner of the Saginaw diocese in Michigan.