Today’s Gospel Study concludes: “Remember saints are not perfect, they just try harder to do what the Lord asks.” As you reflect on the gospel story of the widow who gave all of what she had to the Temple, ask yourself, “How can I try harder to do what the Lord is asking of me?”
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.”
Whom Do You Admire?
When I first read this gospel of the poor widow, I was reminded of a cute little story I heard recently about another poor widow who was asleep in her apartment one night when a burglar broke in and alarmed her. He came up to her as she was awakened by the noise and with a gun pointed at her said, “Lady, don’t move. Don’t make any noise and you won’t get hurt. I’m just here looking for money.” The very poor elderly widow laughed and she said, “Looking for money here? Then let me turn the light on and look with you.”
Our gospel today has two parts to it. Perhaps we could divide our commentary accordingly. The first part is about the proud scribes who are the antithesis of the humble poor widow that we will look at secondarily. First, Jesus brings our attention to the scribes who would’ve been congregating around the temple area where Jesus is presently speaking. He says to his disciples, “Be on guard against the scribes who like to parade around in their robes and accept marks of respect in public, front seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets.”
I have to confess, this teaching makes me a little uneasy. As far as I can see, it’s the priest who primarily wears the long robes, accepts the marks of respect in public, sits in the front of the church and sits at places of honor at banquets. So I have to take a hard look at this myself, but I’m also hoping that perhaps you could see at least a little of a tendency in all of us for this type of clericalism that Jesus finds so difficult. It can also show itself in a form of elitism or egotism or narcissism that has no corner of the market among priests or the Catholic Church but is widely seen in any business or home or secular setting.
We would do well to look at these charges that Jesus brings against the Scribes, just in case there’s a little scribe hiding inside of us. First, Jesus says he finds fault in the fact that they like to parade around others. The emphasis there is parading around in long flowing robes. These long robes were sometimes sweeping on the ground—much like the train of a bride’s dress—to be a sign of great honor and respect obviously drawing attention to themselves as if they’re some kind of royalty. We need to ask ourselves, in the mirror of this gospel, what do we do? How do we carry ourselves that draws attention to ourselves rather than giving attention to the Lord in the temple, or in the church, or giving our attention to others.
The Scribes, very humanly and naturally, love to be greeted with honor and respect in public. Well don’t we all? Don’t we all? And yet the sign of a real saint is not that they make themselves look so good, as they will make the other even look better. Again, Jesus is calling us to turn it around—conversion—to see that we’re not about puffing up ourselves. In fact it’s the opposite, for us to be self-effacing. This is why he had such difficulty with the Scribes who also liked to sit in the front seats in the synagogue.
In the synagogue there was a curtain there where the Torah was kept—not unlike our tabernacle in many churches. So there is the Torah, the first five books of the Bible kept in a scroll that was the very sign of the Lord’s presence. They also had, against that wall, a bench where the distinguished dignitaries would sit facing the congregation and evidently many of them liked to be on “stage” looking out to an admiring congregation. This is what really got to Jesus because it missed the focus on the Lord. You see, Jesus was always pointing us to focus on the Father and that’s why we can so often get in the way of God; even with our best intentions. We all do that.
Finally, Jesus finds fault with the scribes because they are always taking the places of honor at banquets. Banquets, not unlike wedding banquets today, have certain seats of honor. In all these cases I said earlier, I’m embarrassed to say usually it’s the priest that they usually ask to sit next to the bride and groom at banquets. I’ve sat there often thinking, ‘I really should be at the end of the line.’ Sometimes people like to put us up there and I think the more they like to do that, the harder the temptation will be for us to take the lower place. Don’t think of that in such simple physical choreography of the rooms, it’s more important that we see this is an outward sign of an inward disposition and that’s what Jesus is getting at.
There is nothing so terrible about any one of the things Jesus is finding fault with except that it all seems to represent how the Scribes had a certain spirit that was corrupt with pride and arrogance. Jesus was calling his disciples to be about something that was the antithesis of that, which is to say, humble service that is the very heart and soul of worship and religion. What infuriated Jesus even more, was evidently the fact—as we hear in the last part of this first half the gospel—that these very religious leaders “in the name of religion” devoured the savings of widows and would recite long prayers for appearance sake. It is they, Jesus says, who will receive the severest sentence.
If there’s anyone who stood up for the poor and the voiceless in society, it was Jesus, and it is the most sacrilegious thing that religion sometimes takes advantage of these very poor people. I know we could all see some signs of that even today. I won’t go into any example because the most important thing is that we first look within ourselves. And perhaps more importantly, that we look to what Jesus focused his attention on, the poor widow.
Jesus has set the stage for what Mark will now bring our attention to in the second half of the gospel. As Jesus finishes this hard teaching on the Temple against clericalism and religious abuse, he then observes this poor widow who stands in stark contrast to the Scribes. Don’t miss this point that Mark the evangelist is intending, this juxtaposition of the comparison of the self-serving Scribes on the one hand, now to be compared to the self-sacrificing widow on the other. He intends this to be a powerful lesson on religion. Recall this teaching is taking place at the Temple which was at the very heart of the religion of Judaism; and not unlike Jesus would want to speak here at the Cathedral, the center of Archdiocesan worship.
We are told that Jesus observed the crowd putting money into the collection box. That very thought amuses me, that Jesus was watching who and what people were putting into the collection. He said many of the wealthy put in “sizable amounts” but one poor widow came and put in two small copper coins worth about a cent. Now notice, Jesus does not discourage the wealthy from putting in sizable amounts, but what caught Jesus’ attention and admiration was the poor widow. I often think of it when I see different plaques in church today, so-and-so gave this or so-and-so gave that and I wonder if that’s in the spirit of this gospel because these poor widows, who give even more generously, are hardly mentioned because they’re not special friends and contributors even though they give in dollars what measures even more generous a proportion of their income.
A little about this poor widow. First, in Jesus’ time, the words “poor” and “widow” went together like two sides of the same coin. “Widow” was that person who not only was without husband, but without a major source of income in a day when there was no Social Security or pension plan. So with their very meager resources, a widow’s concern was simply how she was going to make it from day to day as a matter of survival. The two small copper coins that she gives into the collection were the smallest of all the coins used in the currency of Jesus’ time. Scholars today believe that in today’s economy those two small copper coins would be equivalent to two quarters.
Jesus called his disciples over when he noticed this widow’s contribution and told them, “I want you to observe this poor widow who contributed more than all the others who donated to the treasury. They gave from their surplus wealth but she gave from her want, all that she had to live on.” Isn’t that a beautiful line? “She gave all that she had to live on.” You can see that Jesus wanted his disciples to not miss this lesson of what it means to give to God all that we have to live on and how few of us have that generosity of heart to give over all that we would otherwise hold onto ourselves. I suggest that we spell this widow’s mite, M-I-T-E as M-I-G-H-T for this widow certainly exemplifies a mighty trust in God. She invested her savings, her self, completely into trusting in the generosity of the Lord.
When Jesus saw it, it must’ve so inspired him, he immediately called his disciples and said, ‘You’ve got to see this!’ You know how it is when we see something that inspires us and we tell our friends, ‘You’ve got to see this! You’ve got to hear this!’ [Jesus might have been saying], ‘Look at this widow. This is a living parable of what I’ve been trying to teach you all along.’ Jesus wanted his disciples to see such a beautiful example of the gospel of giving and serving and sacrificing. That’s what it’s all about.
I was reminded too of another cute little joke I heard, speaking of contributions. There was a discussion among a $50 bill, a $20 bill, and a single dollar bill about which one of them was more important. Well the $50 bill obviously spoke up first saying, ‘What’s the problem? It’s a matter of simple arithmetic. Figure it out for yourselves. I’m worth more than both of you guys put together.’ Well the $20 bill argued the point, saying, ‘Yes, but it all depends on what you value most. According to what’s more valuable, I happen to value being with common people and I’m with people when they take me to the restaurants, to the movie theaters, to sporting events. I’m with the common people and I love it. I’m more valuable.’ The single dollar bill was very silent for a while, but then spoke up. ‘You’ve got a point. It all depends on what you value. Remember how we have all written across our face In God We Trust? Well, I personally value religion. I myself am in church every single Sunday in the collection, but I never see either of you guys there!’
A little observation about Jesus’ observation. Isn’t it interesting to look at who Jesus admired, the type of people he admired. It is not the kind of people that his society highlighted or esteemed; and nor do we today. The people Jesus admired are not the rich and famous, the movers and shakers, nor even the religious leaders—not to mention athletes or entertainers. The type of people Jesus admired always seem to be the simple, humble people. Right?
Even as we read the gospel, recall just a couple weeks ago, when Jesus wanted to make a point with the Pharisees, he brought a little child before them who counted for nothing in the status conscious society of Jesus’ day and age. Or remember Jesus bringing the blind man, who was a handicapped person, that people would’ve been blind to even see him as a beggar along the street. Somehow Jesus saw in these little people, a great example of what we must be.
If that is the case, I wonder who Jesus would admire in our churches today? I wonder who he would point out as the living parable of this gospel? It would be people who are an inspiration for our life, needing to look at them as a way of learning the lesson that Jesus wants to teach us. You know, I really believe that there is no better way of learning a lesson than by the inspiring people the Lord places in our lives. Who are these people Jesus would admire?
I asked myself that same question last Sunday. Knowing that this coming Sunday would be this gospel of the poor widow, as I sat in the front of church in my long robes I looked out at dark people and observed them—not as they were putting into the collection basket, but just as we were praying together—and I became conscious of a beautiful widow in our Cathedral parish. My attention and admiration has been drawn to her—not just this Sunday but many times—as a living example of a living saint among us. She is someone I would like to share as the greatest example I find around me that portrays the widow in the gospel today.
I’m speaking of Mrs. Stratton who was born in 1907 and lived for most of her life in the West End; not too far from here in the Laurel Holmes housing project. She was happily married and lived here with her husband in Cincinnati but her husband died at a very young age in 1957. They couldn’t have any children by themselves but shortly after her husband died her sister-in-law also died and left two young boys whom Mrs. Stratton adopted and raised herself sending them all the way through Elder high school, which is no small thing given her income.
In order to support herself, and them, she worked as the housekeeper at St. Joseph’s Church in the West End. Her full-time salary was $40 a week. That’s one dollar an hour. Yet still, she told me, she gave to the church two dollars every single Sunday. My friends that’s tithing 5% of her income. She said she never had any extra money to have any kind of savings in the bank, but the Lord provided for her needs. Not only did she tithe her money she tithed even more of her time as she volunteered as a Sacristan in the church and as a bingo worker for more than 36 some years. Can you talk about greater love than this no one has?
In fact that’s where I first met her. I was the associate pastor at St. Joseph’s parish where she was and we would work bingo together every Saturday night and I would always cry on her shoulders I hate bingo! And she would say, “Oh Father, it isn’t that bad.” She’s been working at this 36 years you know. It would just drive me crazy. I think it was then that she began to pray for me. She told me just recently that she adopted all of us priests at the parish as her children and prayed for us every single day, even to this day. I didn’t realize that but was so touched by this woman’s heart that was so large to hold us as her sons and hold us in prayer each day. That is great love.
In 1968 Mrs. Stratton had breast cancer and several years later had colon cancer but nothing stopped her from giving of herself to the church. She still made her way, walking to church at least twice a week every Friday and Sunday. Every week when she comes—immediately following the service—she walks through the pews and puts all the books back in the rack; picks up all the paper fallen on the floor; and—no small thing—makes sure there’s still enough toilet paper in the restroom. That is humble services, isn’t it?
A few weeks ago Mrs. Stratton had her purse stolen here in church and with it her church envelope that was always there. She still to this day tithes. Interestingly, it was just one week later she was in church walking through the pews cleaning them when she found on the floor a hundred dollar bill that she gave immediately to the pastor who insisted that she found it, she should keep it. I myself would have seen it as a sign from God—He wanted me to have it!—but in her wonderful generosity she said, “It belongs to the Lord.”
Can you see how those words describe the poor widow in Jesus’ life and what is expected of all of us who give the Lord all ourselves? It all belongs to the Lord, it’s just that we figure out how much the Lord wants to share with us and share with others. It’s that mentality and generosity we want to emulate. I guess the question for all of us is: Who do you admire? Who is it that inspires you? Look to the simple, humble people around you. You may even be surprised it could be somebody in your own household, among your own family. We’re not talking about perfect people. Remember saints are not perfect they just try harder to do what the Lord asks. Amen.