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 to 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 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.(P) The word of the Lord.
The Lord keeps faith forever, secures justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets captives free. (R)
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)
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)
Brothers and sisters: 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.(P) The word of the Lord.
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 market places, 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."(P) The Gospel of the Lord.
Today's gospel is divided into two parts. The first part involves Jesus' warning about scribes. During the time of Jesus, the scribes were considered influential Jewish religious leaders and experts in the Old Testament Law. Presumably, some scribes were Pharisees. In the gospels, they are mentioned most often among the groups of people usually in conflict with Jesus. However, not all the scribes were hostile toward Jesus; indeed, some seemed to be among His admirers. For instance, you may recall that, last week, we read about a scribe who, with genuine admiration, acknowledged Jesus' response to his question regarding the greatest commandment and even further added that "to love God with all of one's heart, understanding, strength, and to love one's neighbour as oneself is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices". And Jesus commended the man by saying that he was not "far from the kingdom of God".
But today's gospel directs us to Jesus' warning to His listeners against the scribes' attitude and conduct. Indeed, there are many instances in the gospels where Jesus gave the crowd warnings. This time, He said, "Beware of the scribes, who like to go around in long robes and accept greetings in the market places, seats of honour in synagogues, and places of honour at banquets. They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext, recite lengthy prayers", Mark (12:38-40a).
Jesus' warning contained two serious charges against the scribes. The primary charge against the scribes was that they were dressing in a way that drew attention to themselves. In the time of Jesus, in Palestine and the surrounding regions, the kings, priests and people of rank and prominence used to wear long robes made of rich materials, whereas common people wore tunics. In obedience to the instruction from the Book of Numbers, the Israelites used to make tassels on the corners of their garments in order to identify themselves as Jews, and that they were people of God, Book of Numbers (15:38).
The scribes, probably, either in imitation of the priests wore long robes or wore tunics with extra-long tassels to distinguish themselves from others and to be associated with prestigious temple establishment. Now, there was nothing wrong in wearing long robes or wearing outsized tassels on the robes. Nonetheless, some scribes were fond of wearing these robes in public, whenever they visited the temples and synagogues, market places and special events, so as to attract notice, greetings and places of honour.
The second charge was that they were exploiting the people, particularly widows, in violation of the covenantal commandments, Exodus (22:22). In Jesus' time, since the scribes acted both as teachers and interpreters of the Law, many people had them involved both in their spiritual and in legal matters, which was to pray for them and, as needed, to manage their money. They were forbidden to ask for payment for their services. However, nothing prohibited them from soliciting contributions for their personal support. They also used to make long prayers to make themselves look good and dear to God. Their false piety made it easy for them to take advantage of vulnerable people in Jewish society, such as widows. Indeed, their actions were tantamount to coveting and stealing the widows' livelihood on behalf of the temple.
Thus, Jesus warned the crowd to guard against the ostentatiousness, covetousness, rapacity, hypocrisy and capricious conduct of the scribes. And at the same time, Jesus said to them that those scribes who exploited the people under the guise of religious commitment would face severe condemnation. Here, Jesus did not say what kind of punishment would be meted out but, in another context, Jesus said, "To whomever much is given, of him will much be required; and to whom much is entrusted, of him more will be asked", Luke (12:48b).
The second part of the gospel concerns people's offerings to God. As Jesus was sitting in the temple near the offering box and watching people put in their offerings, He noticed some rich people dropping large sums of money, probably putting them in the metal boxes in such a way that the crowd could hear the clinking sound. In Jesus' day, the coins were minted in precious metal and the value of the coin was known by the weight and size. And so, when people dropped the coins made of different metals and sizes, people could calculate from the clinking sound the value of the coins. Whereas the widow shyly dropped her two small coins into the box, they hardly made any sound. But despite the crowded, noisy temple courtyard, Jesus heard what no one else could. As the coins fell into the offering box, he heard two clinks which drew attention to her sacrificial gift.
The widow's contribution to the temple treasury were not worth much, but presumably represented a significant portion of her daily wage. It was too small to sustain her for long, but probably was large enough to afford a meal. By her giving, she did not just fulfil her religious duty, but rather humbly and gratefully acknowledged God as the Source of all she needed. And Jesus recognized the widow's gift, and said to His disciples that "her contribution was greater than others because while the others had given from their surplus, and thus did not sacrifice anything much to God, she, despite her need, gave all she had to live on. Here, Jesus had based His calculation, not on what the widow gave, but on what she had left for herself", Mark (12:43-44).
What is the message for us?
I believe that the first part of the gospel is wholly applicable to all who hold formal and informal positions and authority in our Church, including elders, deacons, priests, bishops, preachers, pastors, nuns, ministers and the Pope. Just like in the days of Jesus, we do either witness or experience the abuse or misuse of a position and of authority by some of our Church leaders. Sadly, some are more concerned with personal comfort, privilege and gain than with faithful service. Their attitude, behaviour and lifestyles cause discomfort and scandals to our faith and community.
Today, we shall pray for such leaders that they may take heed of Jesus' warning to the scribes, to avoid the Lord's "severe condemnation". We shall pray that they may repent for the glory of God. At the same time, we must recognize that there are also thousands of very sincere, dedicated, God-centred, and compassionate leaders inside the church. They willingly sacrifice their time, energy, families, friends, home, riches and emotional needs, even their very lives if need be, to advance the Kingdom of God on this earth. They sincerely attend to the spiritual needs of people and tirelessly work for the upliftment of the poor, the helpless and the vulnerable. We shall pray for those leaders as well, by name when we can, every day and at every Mass.
Lastly, I would like to take this opportunity to thank you all, here in Hong Kong and my friends around the world, for your dedication and help to our church, Saint Peter's, and our ministry for seafarers, the Apostleship of the Sea, over the past fifty years, especially for your pledged support to our present needs. Let us continue to support the mission of the Church, and do kind acts of charity and good works in the name of Jesus and for the glory of God.(P) Amen.
God Bless You!