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In this month of November, we are pondering the Last Things (Death, Judgment, Heaven, Hell) and gearing up for the celebration of Christ the King in two weeks (!). The falling leaves remind us that our bodies will one day fall to the ground, and our spirits return to God (Eccl. 12:7) to face judgment for the “deeds done in the body” (2 Cor. 5:10). Can anyone face the judgment of God? Only those who trust completely in him, and we call this trust “faith.” This Sunday’s Readings give us a powerful lesson in faith.
1. Our First Reading is from 1 Kings 17:10-16, the story of Elijah’s visit to the widow of Zarephath:
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.
The thing to notice in this passage is that Elijah asks the widow to go and bake him a cake of bread to eat before she makes anything for herself and her son! This was a real act of faith: if the prophet’s word did not come true, she would have used up the last of her provisions feeding him. So she was faced with a difficult choice: she could trust only in what she could see and feel, and get one last meal for herself and her son. Or, she could take a gamble on this wandering prophet’s words, give up the tangible flour and oil she had in her possession, and hope for the miracle he promised. This remarkable woman chose the latter option. How many of us would do the same? As a result, she and her son ate not just for another day, but for a whole year.
Zarephath was in the region of Sidon, which was populated by Phoenicians and related groups, not Israelites. So this demonstration of faith arises from a woman who was not even a member of the covenant people. She is one of several Gentile individuals, including Ruth the Moabitess and Uriah the Hittite, who are anticipations of the spread of the Good News to all nations through Jesus Christ.
2. The Responsorial Psalm is Psalm 146:7, 8-9, 9-10:
R. (1b) Praise the Lord, my soul!
The LORD keeps faith forever,
secures justice for the oppressed,
gives food to the hungry.
The LORD sets captives free.
R. Praise the Lord, my soul!
The LORD gives sight to the blind.
The LORD raises up those who were bowed down;
the LORD loves the just.
The LORD protects strangers.
R. Praise the Lord, my soul!
The fatherless and the widow he sustains,
but the way of the wicked he thwarts.
The LORD shall reign forever;
your God, O Zion, through all generations. Alleluia.
R. Praise the Lord, my soul!
We notice obvious connective motifs in this psalm: “The fatherless and the widow he sustains,” he “gives food to the hungry” and “raises up those who were bowed down.” We see concrete examples of God’s goodness in Elijah’s blessing of the widow of Zarephath.
Yet this Psalm, too, calls us to faith, because the attributes of the LORD described here, his justice and kindness, are not always evident visibly. We look around us and see many oppressed, many hungry, many bowed down. Where is the justice of the LORD? This, too, requires faith: to continue to trust in the ultimate goodness of God, and that his justice and mercy will ultimately prevail, while living in the meantime in the middle of what seems at times to be a flood of deceit, injustice, oppression, falsehood, persecution, both outside the Church and frequently inside it, as well.
3. Our Second Reading is 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.
In a way, this Second Reading answers some of the existential questions raised by the psalm. We affirm that the LORD gives justice to the oppressed, food to the poor, etc. but often do not see it around us. Where, O LORD, is your justice, mercy, kindness, when we witness such suffering around us, or experience it ourselves? The author of Hebrews reminds us, first of all, that Jesus Christ is intimately aware of all our sufferings, because he has shared in them, giving his life as a sacrifice and sharing in the same death that all of us will face at the end of our lives. This gives us confidence that he understands and sympathizes with our condition in this fallen world. Secondly, the sacred author reminds us that it is not primarily for this life that we have hope, and not primarily in this life that we will see God’s justice, mercy, and goodness revealed, but rather the life to come. So “he will appear a second time … to bring salvation to those who eagerly await him.” Yet it takes faith to trust this promise and, like the widow, risk the little handful of flour we can see, touch, and handle for the sake of an offer of long-lasting (indeed everlasting) life that we cannot see as yet.
4. Our Gospel is 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.”
These religious hypocrites have a heart opposed to the heart of the LORD. They regard religion as a means to acquire wealth and social esteem. Rather than providing for widows, they “devour the houses of widows.” This may refer to the dissipation of the savings of widows by taking advantage of their hospitality.
Sometimes the Pharisees are misunderstood has highly moral people who lived lives of stringent ethical standards and asceticism. That actually wasn’t true. Often they had a fair amount of wealth (those in “long robes” obviously weren’t working men, since you couldn’t wear a long robe and do manual labor) and lived comfortably, not ascetically. And their moral standards were not too high. Most Pharisees had no problem with divorce and remarriage, for example, even multiple times, sometimes for even trivial reasons. The Pharisees did not specialize in living to high moral standards. They specialized in manipulating religious law to find ways to get around the demands of divinely-revealed morality. They were more like canon-law casuists than saints.
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.”
Like the widow of Zarephath, this widow makes an act of faith that involves everything she has. Perhaps it was an act of faith in eternal life. Knowing that her two pennies would only help her survive a few more days, she decided to offer them in praise to God, commit her soul to him, and accept her death. In many ways, this widow was willing to do what the rich young man (Oct. 14th, 28th Sun. in OT) was not: that is, to give up her worldly possessions to possess God. This is the act of faith we, too, are being called to make as we Christians around the world are mostly living in societies under governments or within cultures that are less or more hostile, for whatever reason, to the person of Jesus Christ and his teachings. For the sake of our worldly possessions—which in an eternal perspective are nothing more than a miserable handful of flour worth one or two days of life—we ought not turn our backs on the Prophet who has given us a sure promise of eternal life.
One way of imitating the widow is to radically renounce all one’s wealth and enter the religious life. We should take time to admire, appreciate, and encourage those who have chosen this whole-hearted path of following Jesus.
But others of us are called to life in the world. Maybe we have to run businesses and support families. Radical poverty is not going to be helpful for the people we have to support. How do we “contribute all we have” to Christ’s service?
First, we have to change our mindset, and think of ourselves as “stewards” (managers or executors) of our wealth, which is not really ours but on loan to us from God. Then we need to practice the virtues of modesty, temperance, and generosity. Modesty, in that we live in a non-ostentatious, non-showy way. We avoid all conspicuous displays of wealth or lavishness. Temperance, in that we learn how to keep our appetites in check, and eschew large expenditures (of time or money) on things that are just for our own pleasure. Generosity, in that we learn to give sacrificially to the needs of the Church and the poor—not just what we can comfortably spare, but even to what involves a sacrifice on our lifestyle. St. Josemaria gave good guidance for lay people trying to live a Gospel lifestyle of modesty, temperance, and generosity. He recommended we take good care of those things we really need, but “have nothing superfluous.” He also taught that we should practice small acts of mortification throughout the day—going without butter or salt at a meal, skipping the sugar in our coffee, making the effort to sit up straight for an hour at a time at our desk, etc. In these little ways, we learn not to be controlled by comfort or the desire for pleasure. It enables us to distinguish more clearly between or needs and our wants, so that we can be generous with our wealth. After all, we have faith that “no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, … will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come, eternal life” (Mark 10:29-30
 St. Josemaria Escriva, Conversations with Monsignor Escriva de Balaguer (Dublin: Ecclesia Press, 1972), §111.