Chaplain's Comments

One of the great studies of the human condition is 'Shantung Compound', a narrative by theologian Langdon Gilkey about life in a Japanese internment camp during World War II. As Gilkey describes it, the Japanese treated these Westerners relatively well, and they adjusted to this quasi imprisonment. There were conflicts, however, when people were asked to give up some comfort for the common good. Those called upon for a small sacrifice were resentful and complaining, and they contrived all kinds of reasons why it would be more just for others to be imposed upon instead of them. Gilkey's experiences led him to abandon his optimism concerning human nature; and he came to regard humans as deeply narcissistic. We can be generous, he thought, just as long as it doesn't really cost us by violating our comfort zone. Push the edges of that, and it is dog-eat-dog.

Jesus lines up the religious leaders of his day and lets them have it with both barrels. It may come as a surprise to learn that hypocrisy is the sin Jesus condemns most frequently in the gospels. He could not bear it. Nor should we.

The scribes in the gospels were the lawyers of their day. They were often referred to as rabbis as well, for they were not just jurists, but also religious teachers a cross between a priest and an attorney. Most of them were Pharisees and while some of them were good and holy men, it is clear that many of them were frauds. Some scribes liked to parade their piety before the community.

When smaller 'talliths', or prayer shawls, would have done at the required prayer time, some scribes wore very large ones, and all the time. They seem to have hunted in packs and demanded respect, rather than earn it. Throughout the whole life of Jesus they were among his most watchful and determined opponents.

We can take it from what Jesus condemns in their behaviour, that it would have pleased him to have observed the opposite. If that's true then we are called to wear simple robes, not look for notoriety in the community, be happy with whatever seat we get at church or in a restaurant, say short prayers and be very careful how we conduct our business affairs.

Being powerful and rich is not a problem in itself. As with all gifts it is what we do with them that shows us up for who we are. The problem with religious, political, social or even family power, and the wealth that can come from it, is that it is so seductive. The more powerful and rich we become the more we can think everything is our due. We can take our eye off the giver of all gifts and avoid our responsibility to share with those who are left with nothing.

In the second part of today's Gospel, Jesus points to the poor widow. We meet the famous widow of the widow's mite, a story of such power that it has a currency beyond religious circles. In the Jewish Temple, women could only come into the very first of three courtyards in the complex. Not surprisingly it was called the Court of Women. In this area there were thirteen trumpet shaped boxes where people put their Temple tax and other financial offerings. Mark gives us great detail the widow's offering. He tells us that the widow gave two small copper coins or a quadran, adding up to one penny. A quadran was about 1\64 of a denarius, which was a worker's daily wage. In today's money she gave about $3.75, which is all she had to live on. Be like her, he tells us; make it cost.

Jesus does not praise the widow because she is poor. There is no nobility in poverty. Jesus praises her for being generous and he indicates how the poor teach the rich about what really matters in life, about what it means to be humble.

Most of us were given wrong ideas about humility that it was about feeling bad about oneself. Michael McGirr in 'Finding God's Traces' puts it this way, "Humility is not putting yourself down. It is the acceptance of the truth about oneself. For St Ignatius Loyola, that truth is that Jesus invites us into a close relationship. In this relationship, we discover absolute dependence on God. No material aspiration or achievement can hold a candle to the dignity that comes from being a child of God. The opportunities that come our way in life should be accepted or rejected on the basis of whether or not they will bring us closer to God.

Jesus challenges us today to avoid being seduced by power, riches and greed, and to use whatever gifts we have received to build up the entire human family. In such a world scribes would learn from widows, and widows would share in the wealth of scribes.

The Christian life is as simple and complex as that. May we never stand condemned by Jesus saying one thing, and then leaving here and doing the very opposite.

Fr Gaetan Pereira SJ
College Chaplain