Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
November 11, 2018
Proper 27B: The Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Every time I hear this morning’s beloved Gospel narrative—commonly referred to in the tradition as “The Widow’s Mite”—I am reminded of a story, perhaps apocryphal, told about the late, great actress Tallulah Bankhead, who really was a devoted Anglican, albeit with a wicked and ironic sense of humor. Apparently, Ms. Bankhead had just attended a high Anglican liturgy in an English cathedral, at which an Anglican bishop, all bedecked in his episcopal finery, presided. The liturgy included the use of incense burning in a golden thurible on a long chain. Anglican lore has it that, at the conclusion of the service, Ms Bankhead approached the bishop and, in that legendary, deep gravelly voice, said to him, “Your Grace, I love your drag, but your purse is on fire.”
Well, you get the vivid picture concerning religious pretensions. And, apparently, Jesus had a very similar experience at the Jerusalem Temple during that fateful week before his execution by the Roman authorities. In Jesus’ case, he was taken aback by the hypocrisy of the scribes, experts in Jewish law drawn from the Torah of Moses. Some of these lawyers did not “walk the talk,” as we say in Church circles nowadays. And we must be very careful here to resist the temptation to lapse into the tragic and all-too-familiar Christian anti-Judaism resulting from this, and many similar polemical passages in the Gospels, by recalling that, just a few weeks ago, we heard Jesus rebuke two of his three closest disciples for their religious pretensions. Recall James and John who made their request to sit in glory, one at Jesus’ right and one at his left, when he came into his “kingdom.” The human penchant for the seats of honor and pride of intellect transcends religious identification or affiliation. Justice and humility are the hallmarks of both the person Jesus and his teaching, and he confronts their opposites wherever he finds them, yesterday and today. And God knows there are pretensions aplenty in the Church! It’s what is in our hearts and what we do with our lives that matter to God in Christ, not our finery and frippery. Unless I have seriously misread the Gospel story, God will not be checking clothing, credentials, houses, titles, incomes, or membership cards in “the life of the world to come.” God in Christ will, however, be concerned with open “hearts of flesh” and acts of “justice, mercy, and righteousness” when we come into the light and the fullness of His presence.
So, this brings us to the widow of this morning’s Gospel who, together with orphans and the “ger toshav,” the “resident strangers,” is a constant object of God’s special concern in the Torah and the Prophets. Because they have lost that indispensible male protection and sponsorship in their patriarchal, tribal society, God takes them under God’s own protection and charges God’s people to take special care of them, along with the stranger and the resident alien in their midst. I often wonder if Donald J. Trump has consulted his Hebrew Bible, which commands compassion for the stranger in our midst no less than thirty-six times, before demonizing impoverished migrants and asylum seekers fleeing violence and war. This will be the measure of a person according to the ethics of the Torah, and it is entirely consonant with Jesus’ explicit and unequivocal mandate in the New Testament to care for the “least”: the marginalized and the dispossessed. The contrast between those who contribute to the Temple “out of their abundance” and the widow who ”out of her poverty” gives “all she had to live on”—just those two copper coins “worth a penny”—is so marked and dramatic that it really speaks for itself. It is clear that the widow is the perfect exemplar of the radical generosity of the “kingdom of God” and its ethic of complete and unrestricted self-giving.
Now, it would be tempting here to launch into a reflection—especially at this time of year—on the demands concerning the good stewardship of the “big three”: time, talent, and treasure. In fact, it’s a pretty safe bet that in very many churches this Sunday morning—and at this very hour—just such exhortations are occurring. But that is not where this morning’s readings drew me in my prayer around them this week.
What astonished me about both widows in today’s readings—the one in I Kings and the widow in the Gospel according to Mark—are their radical trust in God’s providence and their willingness to share literally everything they possess, even in extremity. The widow and her son in the Elijah story are facing starvation during a terrible, extended drought in the land. She is gathering sticks to prepare their last meal with the few scraps of grain left to her and the boy before their deaths. When the prophet of God asks her to share the meager scraps with him and she hesitates, Elijah tells her “Do not be afraid….For thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: the jar of meal will not be emptied, and the jug of oil will not fail, until the day that the Lord sends rain upon the earth.” And so it happens. “She went and did as Elijah said,” the narrator tells us, “so that she, as well as he and her household, ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied; neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.” Like the widow in Saint Mark’s Gospel, she gives not “out of…abundance” but “out of her poverty.” Where did she find the strength and courage for such radical generosity, together with her complete and utter trust in God’s loving providence? How did each of these widows—staring death in the face—give everything they had? I just could not get past these haunting questions in my prayer.
Then, it suddenly struck me: the answer, if you will, to my prayer. These two amazing women—who lived at the bottom of their society’s pecking-order with only God to protect them—shared the little they had because, unlike me, they had no illusions of self-sufficiency. They knew that absolutely everything, including the Creation, comes to us from God’s radical concern for us, right to our very last breath. In fact, in the Jewish tradition, the first prayer of the day, spoken immediately upon awakening in the morning is, “I thank you, living and eternal King, for giving me back my soul today in mercy. Great is your faithfulness, and greatly are you to be praised.” We exist at the pleasure of God and, without God’s constant love and concern, we would just vaporize into thin air. In short, these two women recognized and embraced their vulnerability. And, because of this, God gave them what they needed from day to day—and it was enough, and it was good!
You know, whenever I am in the Middle East among faithful Jews and Muslims—and very often they are women—I always marvel at two phrases in particular that I often hear, and often in moments of adversity. “Baruch ata Adonai dayan ha-emeth,” “Blessed be God, the true Judge,” I heard a Jewish daughter cry upon hearing about the death of her father; “al hamdu l’illah,” “thanks be to God,” an agonized Muslim mother shouted as the security police searched her son at a Jerusalem checkpoint. I always marvel at this complete and utterly sincere abandonment to the mercy of God. And I always feel both challenged and ashamed because those are almost never the first words or the sentiments that come to me in the face of adversity. How do these “nobodies” in the eyes of the world get such faith and trust? They get it precisely because they know that they are “nobodies” in the eyes of the world, and that they live by God’s steadfast love and sufferance alone. They have no pretensions, no sense of entitlement, no airs and graces. They just trust in God’s loving providence and abandon themselves to God’s will: “inshallah,” “God willing” in Arabic, another word heard constantly there along with “habibi,” “my friend.” Some might call it Middle Eastern fatalism; I see it as genuinely pious faith and hope and love—the three “theological virtues” that bind us again to God from whom we come and to whom we are going.
Well, I can tell you that I am not there yet, and maybe you aren’t there yet either. In fact, whenever I hear—or ask—those two astonishing questions in the Baptismal liturgy following the renunciation of Satan, evil, and sin:
- Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?
- Do you put your whole trust in his faith and love?
I still shudder and pause until a hidden, tenuous inner-voice answers, “I hope I do.” I hope that I am at least on the road to that fearless trust, that radical generosity, and that total surrender to God’s mercy. And when I despair of ever arriving, I remember Jesus’ consoling words that “for humans, it is impossible, but for God, all things are possible.” Perhaps that’s what draws us here week by week to celebrate the Holy Eucharist together, gathered around the Lord’s Holy Table to receive bread in the wilderness and bracing strength for the journey: the Body and the Blood of our Lord Jesus the Christ.
Let us pray then this morning for the grace—and it is only by grace—to recognize and to embrace our radical vulnerability. Let us ask God for God’s true gifts of faith and hope and love because, sooner or later, we will—like both widows in today’s readings—come to the end of our own resources and find ourselves at the complete and utter mercy of God. And when we do, we might take counsel from the challenging words of Saint John Paul II—words that were the theme of both his life and his papacy: “Be not afraid. Open wide the doors to Christ!” AMEN.