32ND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: THE HIDDEN LESSON OF THE WIDOW’S MITE

devout-prayer

Majority of the devotees in the shrine are poor. Many who flock to the shrine are hungry, thirsty, alienated, depressed, excluded, abandoned and deprived in multiple ways and variety of experiences. Many are just barely getting by, surviving on a day to day existence, as we say in Tagalog, isang kahig, isang tuka, (one scratch, one peck) which means hand-to-mouth existence.  Despite their poverty, they persistently turn to God and Our Mother of Perpetual Help and even generously give of what they have to the many programs and services of the shrine.

This is very true in the building of the shrine.  The construction of the shrine became possible through the coins contributed by the poor devotees. Actual construction of the shrine began in 1953 and finished in 1958. Although there were admittedly some prominent donors, Fr. Lew O’leary, Rector of the shrine at that time, stressed that about 75% of the cost of the construction came from the poor devotees. Devotees dropped their ten centavos through a campaign dubbed as “Ten Cents to Help Build a Shrine.”

This is why it took six years to build the shrine. Most of the money that came from small donations often ran out requiring construction to stop. Truly it is a church by the people, built mainly not by big and rich benefactors, but by the ordinary poor people. No wonder they continue to identify so strongly with it.

In the readings of today’s 32nd Sunday in ordinary time, we hear of extreme examples of utter generosity of the poorest among the poor in Israel during Biblical times–the widow. Widows are among those who suffered the most in Israel during ancient times. Thus, scripture repeatedly reveals God’s care for the widow, the poor, the fatherless and the stranger, and also reveals His anger at those who deprive them of what they need to live. Despite their extreme poverty, our readings today show the utter generosity of two widows.

In the first reading from the first book of Kings, Elijah asks the widow of Zarephath to give him the little cake she was about to share with her son before they die. Amazingly, she accedes to Elijah’s request. And the jar of flour and the jug of oil continue to deliver a miraculous supply that sustains not only her and her child but also the drop-in prophet—for a whole year. In the gospel, a poor widow gave all she had to the temple. The two widows in the readings gave up everything, totally trusting in the goodness of the Lord.

The traditional interpretation of the gospel story tends to view it as contrasting the conduct of the scribes with that of the widow, and encouraging generous giving. I have always heard the story of the Widow’s Mite used in the context of sacrificial giving. I have even heard it often in fund raising enjoining parishioners to generously give to a certain project of the parish.  Focusing on sacrificial giving, however, may miss a very important lesson which Jesus is trying to teach us in the gospel.

To understand this very important lesson of Jesus which may seem hidden to us in the gospel we may need to go back to the scene prior to the gospel story today.  In the passage immediately prior to Jesus taking a seat opposite the Temple treasury, he is portrayed as condemning religious leaders who feign piety, accept honor from people, and steal from widows.

“Beware of the scribes, who like to go around in long robes and accept greetings in the marketplaces, seats of honor in synagogues, and places of honor at banquets. They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext, recite lengthy prayers. They will receive a very severe condemnation.” (Mark 12:38 – 40)

In the light of this earlier passage, Addison Wright commented that more than commending the widow’s generosity, Jesus is actually condemning both the social system that renders her poor, and “…the value system that motivates her action, and he condemns the people who conditioned her to do it” [1]. The religious officials of the day, instead of helping the widows in need, were perfectly content to rob them of their livelihood and inheritance. The system was corrupt, and the darkness of the scribes’ greed makes the widow’s sacrifice shine even more brightly. In other words, more than praising the widow for donating her last mite; Jesus is pointing to her as a specimen of the exploitation of the poor widows by the Jewish leaders. She is not there to have her faith praised–she is there for the damnation of the ruling Jewish elite. Jesus’ saying is not a penetrating insight on the measuring of gifts; it is a lament of what society has become because of the hypocrisy and exploitation by the elite.

Similarly, Ched Myers shows in detail how the scribes so-called religious piety was the very reason for the perpetuation of the suffering and poverty of widows.

Scribal affluence is a product of their ‘devouring the estates of widows under the pretext of saying long prayers’ . . . Through their public reputation for piety and trustworthiness (hence the ‘pretext of long prayers’), scribes would earn the legal right to administrate estates. As compensation they would usually get a percentage of the assets; the practice was notorious for embezzlement and abuse . . . The vocation of Torah Judaism is to ‘protect widows and orphans,’ yet in the name of piety these socially vulnerable classes are being exploited while the scribal class is further endowed . . . [S]cribal piety has been debunked as a thin veil for economic opportunism and exploitation . . . The temple has robbed this woman of her very livelihood (12:44). Like the scribal class, it no longer protects widows, but exploits them. [2]

Sadly, what Jesus observed in his day remains true today. The present socio-economic, political system even religious system continue to exploit the poor and bled them dry of their resources. Yet those with the least continue to give more, by percentage of their resources, than the wealthy. The super wealthy, the wealthy and ostentatious “scribes” of today, actually give less than those who have middle and lower incomes in taxes and in the betterment of society.

Through the gospel story, Jesus is challenging us to see the structures that allow an exploitative system that defrauds the poor and benefits the rich to continue. We need to ask why we let this continue to happen. What can we do to make society and our faith communities more fair, just and equitable?

Hopefully, this Sunday we don’t miss the point of the widow’s mite, but instead accept the challenge of Jesus and make a difference in our world.

 


 

[1] Addison G. Wright, “The Widow’s Mite: Praise or Lament”, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 44, 1982, pp.256-265

[2] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, 20th anniversary ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2008), 320 – 322.

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