Nov 11, 2018: 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Music can change the world because it can change people.Bono

1st Reading – 1 Kings 17:10-16

In those days, Elijah the prophet went to Zarephath.
As he arrived at the entrance of the city,
a widow was gathering sticks there; he called out to her,
“Please bring me a small cupful of water to drink.”
She left to get it, and he called out after her,
“Please bring along a bit of bread.”
She answered, “As the LORD, your God, lives,
I have nothing baked; there is only a handful of flour in my jar
and a little oil in my jug.
Just now I was collecting a couple of sticks,
to go in and prepare something for myself and my son;
when we have eaten it, we shall die.”
Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid.
Go and do as you propose.
But first make me a little cake and bring it to me.
Then you can prepare something for yourself and your son.
For the LORD, the God of Israel, says,
‘The jar of flour shall not go empty,
nor the jug of oil run dry,
until the day when the LORD sends rain upon the earth.’”
She left and did as Elijah had said.
She was able to eat for a year, and he and her son as well;
the jar of flour did not go empty,
nor the jug of oil run dry,
as the LORD had foretold through Elijah.

1 Kings and 2 Kings were originally a single historical work.  It consists of material from various sources, such as the “book of the acts of Solomon” (1 Kings 11:41) and the “book of the chronicles of the kings of Israel” (1 Kings 14:19), which have been forged together by an editor who is focused on fidelity to Yahweh.  Hebrew tradition holds that this editor was the Prophet Jeremiah.

Today’s reading comes from the account of Elijah, Ahab, and the three year drought.  It is is a prediction-fulfillment story.

In those days, Elijah the prophet

Elijah’s name means “My God [Eli] is the Lord [jah].”

left and went to Zarephath.

Zarephath is a Sidonian town – a territory acknowledged as belonging to Baal, not Yahweh. Yet the power of Yahweh has caused a drought there.

As he arrived at the entrance of the city, a widow was gathering sticks there; he called out to her, “Please bring me a small cupful of water to drink.” She left to get it, and he called out after her, “Please bring along a bit of bread.”

According to the ancient obligation of hospitality, she is required to provide to whoever approaches her, regardless of the cost it might exact.

“As the LORD, your God, lives,” she answered,

Note that this foreign woman takes an oath by Yahweh, citing “the LORD, your God,” not Baal.  However, despite her awareness of Yahweh, she does not share Elijah’s commitment to him.

“I have nothing baked; there is only a handful of flour in my jar and a little oil in my jug. Just now I was collecting a couple of sticks, to go in and prepare something for myself and my son; when we have eaten it, we shall die.”

A widow in this patriarchal society had very few resources to call upon.  Through marriage she has left the protection of her father’s house; through widowhood she has lost the security of her husband.

It is ironic that one of God’s greatest prophets is dependent upon one of the most vulnerable members of society.

“Do not be afraid,” Elijah said to her.

These words are often associated with a pending revelation of God.

“Go and do as you propose. But first make me a little cake and bring it to me. Then you can prepare something for yourself and your son.

This is not selfish insensitivity on the part of Elijah.  He is providing her an opportunity to demonstrate faith, thereby providing an avenue for God to save her and her son from the brink of starvation.

For the LORD, the God of Israel, says, ‘The jar of flour shall not go empty, nor the jug of oil run dry, until the day when the LORD sends rain upon the earth.’” 

Using a version of the standard formula for prophetic proclamation, “thus says the Lord,” God makes a promise to provide for her and her son.  He also makes reference to the fact that it is the Lord, the God of Israel, who controls the rain.

God’s withholding of rain is why the woman is in such a dire situation in the first place.  If the land had been fertile, her reserve of water and flour and oil would not be depleted.

She left and did as Elijah had said. She was able to eat for a year, and he and her son as well; The jar of flour did not go empty, nor the jug of oil run dry, as the LORD had foretold through Elijah.

The woman follows the instructions of the prophet, and God fulfills his promise: her limited supplies last for a year, until the rains came.

2nd Reading – Hebrews 9:24-28

Christ did not enter into a sanctuary made by hands,
a copy of the true one, but heaven itself,
that he might now appear before God on our behalf.
Not that he might offer himself repeatedly,
as the high priest enters each year into the sanctuary
with blood that is not his own;
if that were so, he would have had to suffer repeatedly
from the foundation of the world.
But now once for all he has appeared at the end of the ages
to take away sin by his sacrifice.
Just as it is appointed that human beings die once,
and after this the judgment, so also Christ,
offered once to take away the sins of many,
will appear a second time, not to take away sin
but to bring salvation to those who eagerly await him.

Today’s reading from Hebrews seeks to show the unsurpassing excellence of the sacrifice of Christ.  It is based on an understanding of the significance of the temple and of the ritual that was performed within it.

Temples were typically constructed on sites that were already considered sacred, places that claimed to have had a manifestation of the divine.  Such an occurrence was thought to create an opening between heaven, earth, and the underworld.  This opening, called the “navel of the earth,” or the axis mundi, made communication between heaven and earth possible.

Christ did not enter into a sanctuary made by hands, a copy of the true one, but heaven itself,

The temple was built according to the imago mundi, the pattern of the universe.  Its construction and decoration included representations of heavenly bodies and natural creation, demonstrating the connection between heaven and earth.  The people believed that when they entered the earthly temple they were also entering the realm of heaven.

Here, the exalted Jesus enters the true sanctuary of heaven, not an earthly temple patterned after it.

that he might now appear before God on our behalf. Not that he might offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters each year into the sanctuary with blood that is not his own; if that were so, he would have had to suffer repeatedly from the foundation of the world. But now once for all he has appeared at the end of the ages to take away sin by his sacrifice.

The cultic system, established to enable the people to participate in cosmic events by reenacting them, was only able to actualize redemption for their sin for short periods of time.  This is why the ritual of the Day of Atonement was performed year after year: it was imperfect.

In contrast, Jesus offered himself once and for all.  Since Christ was fully human and fully divine, the blood he offered was the blood of God, and therefore had infinite value.  It was a perfect sacrifice.

Christ’s sacrifice, like all cosmic acts, was unrepeatable.  Our earthly ritual of the Mass makes present this eternal sacrifice, but there is no need for Jesus himself to repeat it.

Just as it is appointed that human beings die once, and after this the judgment,

This is the unalterable decree of God concerning men.  They must die, and their soul returns to God to be judged, in order to determine its eternal state.

so also Christ, offered once to take away the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to take away sin but to bring salvation to those who eagerly await him.

In Jesus’ first coming, he had no sin of his own, but he took the form of sinful flesh and bore upon him the sins of the world.

His second appearance will be without the charge of taking away sin, having already fulfilled that mission.  In his second coming, Christ will perfect the holiness of those that are awaiting him, thus completing their salvation.

Note the distinguishing character of true believers is that they are looking for Christ.

Gospel – Mark 12:38-44

In the course of his teaching Jesus said to the crowds,
“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.”

He sat down opposite the treasury
and observed how the crowd put money into the treasury.
Many rich people put in large sums.
A poor widow also came and put in two small coins worth a few cents.
Calling his disciples to himself, he said to them,
“Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more
than all the other contributors to the treasury.
For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth,
but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had,
her whole livelihood.”

At this point in Mark’s gospel, Jesus has been journeying toward Jerusalem and his death.  Today’s reading recounts his final public act before his farewell speech to the disciples and subsequent passion.

In the course of his teaching Jesus said to the crowds,

The criticism that follows is made publicly, to the crowds.

“Beware of the scribes, who like to go around in long robes

While at prayer in the synagogues, men wore long outer garments called tallith. The scribes that Jesus is referring to seem to have been wearing these robes in public, putting themselves on display to enhance their prestige and honor.

Jesus is not necessarily condemning all of the scribes, just those who were making ostentatious displays of piety to conceal their evil motives.

and accept greetings in the marketplaces,

The scribes in question wanted to be admired for their prayerfulness.  Reverential salutations were sought after by the scribes who were seeking this public acclaim.

seats of honor in synagogues,

The congregation sat on benches facing the chest that contained the sacred scrolls.  The most important seats were the front benches.

and places of honor at banquets.

At banquets, the honored guests flanked the host, the most honored sitting at the right, the second honored at the left.

They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext, recite lengthy prayers.

The need to be highly esteemed is frivolous, but it is not immoral.  However, Jesus denounces them further, accusing them of exploiting widows.  It seems that they somehow appropriated the widows’ property, perhaps by having it deeded to them in exchange for prayers.

This makes sense considering that scribes received no set salary. They either had another occupation or relied on donations and gifts.

They will receive a very severe condemnation.”

Widows were among the most vulnerable of the community; exploiting them in the name of religion would result in a severe condemnation at the last judgment.

He sat down opposite the treasury and observed how the crowd put money into the treasury.

The scene changes.  Jesus is seated at the temple, in the court of the women, just opposite the treasury. Around the women’s court walls were thirteen trumpet-shaped chests marked “Alms” (which archeaologists have unearthed), to collect offerings for the upkeep of the temple.

Many rich people put in large sums.

The sound of the money rolling to the bottom of the trumpet-shaped container probably reverberated widely, announcing the charity of the donor.  Large sums and heavy money made lots of noise.

A poor widow also came

In the ancient world, widowhood was a frightening prospect, as reflected in the frequent refrain in Israel’s laws to provide for their special care.  The Hebrew and Greek terms for widow come from roots that suggest helplessness, emptiness, or being forsaken.

and put in two small coins worth a few cents.

She offered the smallest coins in circulation at the time.  The amount equaled about one sixty-fourth of a denarius, a denarius being the normal daily wage of an unskilled worker.

Calling his disciples to himself, he said to them,

In contrast to the public criticism of the scribes, this lesson on generosity is imparted to his disciples in private.

“Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury.

This verse requires the explanation of the following verse. It is not immediately obvious how she contributed more than the others.

For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.”

The explanation of the paradox of the previous verse is that the widow made a real sacrifice while the rest just gave some of their excess.  She had sincere need for the money she gave, implying absolute trust in God.

The reading opened with a condemnation of false piety and closes with praise of genuine piety.

It should be noted that since this account follows Jesus’ criticism of the scribes, some commentators see this not primarily as praise of the woman, but as an indictment of the Temple establishment for exploiting such people.

“Do not despair. One cannot buy heavenly things with money. … If money could purchase such things, then the woman who deposited the two small copper coins would have received nothing very large. But since it was not money but rather her intention that prevailed, that woman received everything because she demonstrated firm conviction” [Saint John Chrysostom (between A.D. 398-404). Homilies On The Epistle To The Philippians].

“The poor widow cast only two pennies into the treasury; yet because she gave all she had it is said of her that she surpassed all the rich in offering gifts to God. Such gifts are valued not by their weight but by the good will with which they are made” [Saint Jerome (ca. A.D. 406), Letter to Julian, No. 118, 5].

Connections and Themes

  • The central theme of this week’s readings is sacrificial generosity — giving all that one has.
    • The widow in the first reading was on the brink of starvation, yet she gave from what she had to Elijah.
    • The second reading describes Christ as the ultimate example of generosity. He first offered himself as expiation for our sins; now as eternal high priest, he stands before God as our mediator, pleading on our behalf, bringing salvation to those who eagerly await him.
    • The gospel reading contrasts the false piety of the scribes with sacrifical generosity of the widow at the temple.
  • When people give, it’s usually out of their abundance.  However, we all give openly to those we love, regardless of whether it will cause a shortfall for ourselves.  This is the kind of giving we aspire to.  If we love God and others as Jesus commanded, this is the way we give.
  • Giving this way requires detachment from this world, which tells us to cling to what we have and always ensure that we have enough.
  • Note the two widows as models of generosity in the readings.  The first was rewarded directly and immediately, with a year’s supply of flour and oil.  The other was completely unaware of the commendation that Jesus had given her.  The truly generous do not seek reward; they carry out their responsibility and place the rest in God’s hands.

2 thoughts on “Nov 11, 2018: 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

  1. Thank you for your detailed explanations and for the connection between all three readings. I always look forward to receiving my weekly emails from you. God bless

    Like

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