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Homily notes: 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B, 11 November 2018

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ  |  02 November 2018

Lectionary reading

First reading: 1 Kings 17:10-16.

Responsorial Psalm 145(146):7-10.

Second reading: Hebrews 9:24-28.

Gospel: Mark 12:38-44.

Link to readings.

Commentary

The link between the First Reading and the Gospel today is that both concern widows who acted with generosity. In biblical society generally widows formed a particularly vulnerable class. They come first in the triad of vulnerable ones to whom the Torah summoned Israel to give particular protection: the widow, the orphan and the stranger in the land.

The wider context of the First Reading (1 Kings 17:10-16) is that of universal famine in Israel during the reign of the worthless King Ahab. Elijah the prophet has been fed in the wilderness by the ravens and slaked his thirst in the wadi Cherith. Now, however, the wadi has dried up because of the lack of rain and he has been instructed by God to go the Sidonian town of Zarephath, where a widow will feed him.

When Elijah approaches the widow for food, she points out the extremity of the situation for herself and her son. With the very little she has left, she is about to prepare a final meal before they die of hunger. Elijah, urging her not to be afraid, asks her to prepare a cake for himself, and then for herself and her son, and assures her that jar of meal and jug of oil will not fail until the famine is over. When the woman does so, putting her trust in the prophet’s word, she finds that provision is made just as he had foretold.

The episode illustrates a more widespread biblical pattern. People who act hospitably and generously, trusting in a divine promise in the face of evidence to the contrary, find that the Lord provides with a generosity that is overwhelming (cf. Gen 18:1-15; Mark 6:35-44; 8:1-9). Faith is the channel through which the generosity and power of God flow into the world.

There are two rather different ways of interpreting the corresponding “widow” scene in the Gospel (Mark 12:38-44). If we set aside the part of the text immediately preceding the description of the widow’s action, that is, Jesus’ condemnation of the scribes for their religious ostentation, then the widow’s action provides an extreme example of religious generosity and trust in God. As Jesus points out, it is not the amount that is contributed that counts before God but the totality of personal trust and self-giving that the amount represents. For some it was just what they had left over after making good allowance for their comfortable lifestyle. For the widow, it was absolutely everything: keeping nothing for herself, she could rely now only on the providence of God to whom she had surrendered all. In this way, the widow becomes an example of faith to admire and possibly to emulate according to circumstance and calling.

 The alternative view is to interpret what is happening here not as something to admire but in effect to deplore. In his denunciation of the scribes in the immediately preceding verses, Jesus had singled out for critique their taking the places of honour at banquets (where they will be very well fed), while “swallowing the property of widows”. Immediately, after the scene he will speak of the destruction of the Temple to whose treasury the widow contributes all she has. This wider context suggests that Jesus is interpreting what the widow does as an instance where religious law, as interpreted by the scribes, is inducing “little ones”, such as her, to contribute to the treasury far more than they can afford and, indeed, as in this instance, their total livelihood. The scene would, then, prepare the way for the prophecy about the Temple’s destruction with which Jesus’ discourse on the future (Mark 13) will commence. In the wider understanding of the Gospel the Temple will in any case cease to be of significance since the function of atonement associated with it will soon be taken over once and for all by the shedding of Jesus’ own blood (Mark 10:45; 14:24). The scene then becomes something of a warning against the way in which religion, falsely interpreted and promoted, can serve to oppress rather than liberate the poor and vulnerable, for whose cause and whose life Christ shed his blood on the cross.

We are not necessarily faced with a stark choice between these two interpretations. Both are valid and valuable – in some ways opposite sides of the one coin. We can admire the widow’s generosity and faith while remaining critical of the religious system that drove her to such extremes.

The Second Reading (Heb 9:24-28) continues the contrast set up last week between the priestly service of the priests of the old dispensation and that of Christ. It stresses the absolute all-sufficiency assurance of Christ’s salvific work for the removal of sin since the sacrifice he offered was that of his own life on the cross.

Brendan Byrne, SJ, FAHA, taught New Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, Vic., for almost 40 years. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Divinity (Melbourne). His commentaries on the Gospels can be found at Pauline Books and Media

 

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