Most Reverend Vincent Long Van Nguyen OFM Conv DD STL, Bishop of Parramatta
Homily for the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B 2021, 7 November 2021
Readings: 1 Kings 17:10-16; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44
God’s kinship for the insignificant, the hidden and the voiceless
The widow’s mite story has been used and misused as a basis for stewardship or thanksgiving campaigns in churches across all denominations. Many years ago, I was asked to support a Parish Planned Giving Program and I must confess that I too used the story of the widow’s generous contribution in a predictable manner. Those poor parishioners must have squirmed in their pews when I indicted them with the question, “If a destitute widow can be so generous, how much more should we give out of our abundance to further the Lord’s work?”
While such application may be legitimate to a certain degree, God’s Word is like a double-edged sword that cuts in different directions. Indeed, the story highlights not so much the need to maintain the institution which is the temple. Rather, it invites us to a deeper level of discernment, conscientisation and action which accords with God’s plan for humanity and for the world. More than a story about generosity in our religious duties, it challenges us to have an eye for the insignificant, the hidden and the voiceless, to advocate for their cause and to work for justice.
Today’s Gospel is combined with another widow story from the Book of the Kings. We are told that Elijah was on his way to confront 400 false prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. It was the most challenging mission and Elijah soon learned that the way to fulfil his mission was not to rely on his devices but on the power of faith. He had been fed by the ravens in the wilderness. But here in a foreign land and during a death-dealing famine, he met a poor widow who gave him her last meal. Her trust and courage in extreme calamity was what Elijah needed. He realised that it was not through physical strength, alpha-male bravado and violent force that he would accomplish God’s plan. Later on, this realisation was confirmed in a dramatic fashion at Mount Horeb. There, God revealed himself not through earthquakes, storms and fires, but a gentle breeze.
Just as in the Book of the Kings, the widow was a source of inspiration for Elijah, Jesus himself showed his disciples that a woman living on the margins of society should be a model of faith. He singled her out not so much for her generosity to the temple as for her trust in God by giving all that she had.
This is an important distinction. In fact, the episode of the widow’s mite is framed between Jesus’ condemnation of the keepers of the temple and his prediction of its destruction. Mark prefaces the widow’s offering with an account of Jesus blasting the religious leaders of his day for their greed, pomposity and crass exploitation of the poor. “Beware of the scribes who swallow the property of widows,” Jesus warned his disciples. Later on, perhaps the widow is still on his mind when he predicts the destruction of the Temple. He has just watched a trusting woman give her all to an indefensible institution, one that refuses to protect the poor. No edifice steeped in such injustice should stand.
In his simple act of noticing her generosity, Jesus does much more than encourage us to fulfil our religious duties. He points out the chasm between people who are marked expendable and those who exploit them. He challenges us to address their dehumanisation in the way that God is the defender of the poor, father of orphans and protector of widows. Perhaps what Jesus noticed too was kinship. Her story mirrors his. The widow gave everything she had to serve a world so broken, it killed her. Days later, Jesus gave everything he had to redeem, restore, and renew that world.
Brothers and sisters,
Today, we celebrate Prison Sunday in Australia. We remember the prisoners who, despite their past, have an inherent dignity. May they always maintain resilience and hope in the face of adversity. We stand with those who work in the prison system, including the courts, the police, the officials and in particular the chaplains. Many of the latter are Catholic who endeavour to care for the inmates with the love and compassion of Christ. Like the widow, they give without counting the cost. Their ministry starts from the standpoint of humility, not from superiority. It is the gift of Chaplains and Pastoral Workers in our prisons to be with the prisoners, to listen without judgment, to be our companion on the journey and to care with Christian compassion.
They say it takes one to know one. Jesus was in deep solidarity with the widow, for there was a kindred spirit between them. She and those who were on the margins of society were the objects of his concern. His messianic mission was about the restoration of their dignity and the victory of justice. Let us pray we may continue this messianic mission of sharing the Good News to the poor and that we can be an alternative community that welcomes, protects and cares for the most vulnerable.