BY FATHER DONALD DILGER
Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: 1 Kings 17:10-16; Response: Psalm 146:7, 8-9, 9-10; Second Reading: Hebrews 9:24-28; Gospel: Mark 12:38-44
The First Book of Kings includes a series of stories about the Prophet Elijah the Tishbite. Supposedly, this description refers to his city of origin, perhaps Tishbe. Elijah’s ministry was confined to the northern kingdom. This was called the Kingdom of Israel in contrast to the southern Kingdom of Judah. The dates of Elijah’s career, 869-849 B.C. King Ahab married a Phoenician princess named Jezebel. She persuaded Ahab to introduce the worship of her god Baal into his kingdom. Elijah was a devout worshipper of the Lord God of Israel. Therefore, he became a staunch opponent of the worship of this heathen god. A sure way to get the attention of Jezebel and her Baal devotees was drought — no rain for three years. Since Baal was thought to be the god of rain and storms, it was a direct attack on him. As the drought took hold on Israel, the Lord God instructed Elijah to move east of the Jordan River. There he settled by a flowing stream. Since man lives not by water alone, the Lord set up a delivery service. Ravens brought bread in the morning, meat in the evening — a diet of carbohydrates and protein.
The stream went dry. A message arrived from the sky. Elijah now had to go west to the Mediterranean seacoast, to the village of Zarephath in the area of the city-state of Sidon. His instructions: “Stay there. I have ordered a widow to give you food.” Arriving at the village he encountered a widow gathering sticks to make a fire. He asked for a cup of water. As she left to get water he also asked for a crust of bread. She replied that all she had was a bit of flour (cornmeal) and a bit of olive oil to form a flatbread for herself and her son. She added, “When we have eaten that, we shall die.” This was not a critique of her cooking skills but implied that the drought had also reached the seacoast. Elijah said, “Just do it.” He entered a prophetic rap mode and chanted, “Jar of meal shall not be spent, jug of oil shall not be emptied before the day when the Lord sends rain upon the face of the earth.” And so it was. She had enough to feed herself, her son, and Elijah for a whole year. Obedience to the Lord through the mouth of a prophet brings blessings. This reading was selected to accompany today’s gospel story, in which Jesus praises another poor widow.
In view of the Lord’s protection of Elijah and care for the widow and her son, Psalm 146 was selected to respond because it expresses the following thoughts — a kind of mission statement for the Lord God. The Lord is faithful. He gives food to the hungry. He lifts up the oppressed and humble. He protects strangers, sustains orphans and widows, thwarts the wicked (Ahab and Jezebel). Because the Lord is faithful and does all these good deeds, the people respond, “Praise the Lord, my soul.”
The second reading continues a series of readings (seven) from the Letter to the Hebrews. The author again compares the high priests of the Old Testament with Jesus, our High Priest. Those high priests entered a sanctuary (the Holy of Holies) made by human hands. Jesus enters heaven, a sanctuary not made by human hands. Those high priests took with them into their sanctuary the blood of an atonement sacrifice, not their own blood. Our High Priest enters heaven with an atonement sacrifice of his own blood. They officiated in this rite once a year. Jesus officiated once and for all time. Their work ended with their death. Jesus will function once more as high priest — not to take away sin, but to bring salvation to those who eagerly await him at the last judgment.
The scribes were the lawyers and the Torah or Pentateuch was their law code in which they found 613 laws. They interpreted and applied those laws to current cases. As in other professions, there were good and bad scribes. Abuses by this class of lawyers was already going on in the times of Isaiah and Jeremiah, 8th and 6th centuries B.C. Isaiah speaks of lawyers who make widows their prey. Jeremiah speaks of “the lying pen of the scribes.” See Isaiah 10:1-2 and Jeremiah 8:8. Mark 7:6-13 denounces scribes who find legal loopholes for their clients to avoid obligations imposed on them by the Torah. In last Sunday’s gospel, we saw a virtuous scribe in a friendly discussion with Jesus. Jesus complimented him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” In today’s gospel, Jesus criticizes scribes. The criticisms seem a bit picky. They enjoyed walking around in long robes, accepting long salutations in public with multiple titles, taking the best seats in the synagogue and places of honor at banquets. That’s all vanity. But now the crimes. They devour the houses of widows, but recite long prayers to distract people from their crimes. They will receive severe condemnation. There is evidence that New Testament authors aimed such indictments at Christian leaders. See 1 Peter 5:2-3; James 2:1-8.
Jesus’ reference to the scribes’ oppression of widows reminds Mark of an example of a poor and generous widow. Jesus and the disciples were sitting opposite the treasury in an outer court of the temple. Thirteen large chests were placed there, each one labeled to indicate the cause for which people could donate. Example of the labels on the chests: wood, incense, six for free will offerings, bird offerings, gold for the mercy seat, overdue pledges. Rich people were putting in large sums. A poor widow dropped two small coins into one of the chests. Jesus comments, “Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all other contributors to the treasury. They gave from their surplus. She gave from her poverty all she had, her whole livelihood.” The donations to the treasury became a symbol of the temple itself. The greed of some of the high priestly families who were in charge, plus their deadly opposition to Christianity at its beginnings, are well known from Acts of Apostles. Mark is writing at the time of the destruction of the temple. The fact that Mark adds immediately Jesus' prediction of the destruction of the temple indicates that he was saying to these deadly enemies of Christians, “You brought this on yourselves.”