ordinary time The Sánchez Archives

Year B

Patricia Datchuck Sánchez

Complete Trust is the Perfect Gift

1 Kings 17:10-16
Hebrews 9:24-28
Mark 12:38-44

Giving is a gentle act, best cultivated in hearts that know they have little to offer and everything to receive (Kings). Christian discipleship grows strong and vital amid a network of giving hearts (Mark) because believers have been blessed with the greatest and the finest gift of all--the love and the life of the Lord Jesus (Hebrews).

1 Kings 17:10-16.

When asked about the possible permanent damage the Watergate scandal would have upon his political career, Richard Nixon replied, “History will be kind to me!” Only time will tell if Mr. Nixon was right and if modern historians will assess his political accomplishments as great enough to outweigh his moral failures when they tell the story of his administration. Such was not the case, however, with the political leaders of Israel and Judah. When the Deuteronomic historian set about the task of recording the deeds of the kings of his people, he evaluated them using a very different set of criteria. Rather than praise their diplomacy or achievements in foreign affairs, he dealt with each of Israel’s and Judah’s kings according to their moral rectitude and fidelity to the covenant and its laws. With the brief statement, “And he did evil before the Lord,” the overwhelming majority of the kings of Israel and Judah were written off as infidels and sinners.

Drawing his information from the Acts of Solomon, as well as the chronicles of the kings of Israel and of Judah, the Deuteronomist produced this special brand of “religious history” shaped according to the following basic tenets or religious presuppositions. (1) Yahweh rewards faithfulness to the covenant relationship and punishes infidelity; the political catastrophes of God’s people are due to their infidelity of the covenant. The Deuteronomist held especially responsible the kings who were to lead the people in the ways of righteousness by their own example. (2) The word of God that had guided Israel from its inception as a people would always be present. Spoken through the prophets, the word would infallibly accomplish its purpose. By way of illustration, the two books of Kings contain some 45 prophetic fulfillment stories (of which our first reading is one). (3) Regardless of events (e.g., exile, banishments and death of kings and people) that seem to militate against it, Jerusalem and its cult would remain central and the promise of the eternal Davidic dynasty (2 Samuel 7:12-15) would be fulfilled.

As part of the string of stories called the Elijah cycle, today’s episode of Elijah with the widow of Zarephath illustrates the power of God’s word, spoken through the prophet to accomplish its stated purposes. Moreover, the story serves as a polemic against the cult of the gods of Canaan who were thought to be the lords of nature, its seasons and its fertility. Elijah, by whose word the drought had come and had caused the famine that threatened the life of the woman and her son, would also have the power by his word (“The jar shall not go empty, nor the jug of oil run dry, until the day the Lord sends rain upon the earth”) to alleviate both famine and drought. For the suffering exiles in Babylon, the story of the widow and her son was also a source of encouragement. Such stories, according to P. Fannon, established the existence and survival of the Israelite remnant that provided a hope for the future despite the moral bankruptcy of the kings.

Obviously, this pericope was chosen to complement today’s gospel because of the character of the widow. With nothing else to rely on, she put her faith in the word of God spoken through Elijah and, because of her faith, she was blessed with life and abundance. Unlike the great kings of the Israelites, she was not swayed by power or avarice. Like the widow in the gospel whose goodness stood out in sharp contrast to that of the scribes, the widow of Zarephath teaches the powerful lesson of absolute trust and confidence in God. In the word and works of Elijah, she recognized the power of Yahweh to save, even amid the bungling of his people and their leaders.

Hebrews 9:24-28.

In Jesus’ day, the existing temple was that which had been begun by Herod in 19 B.C.E. and upon which the work of decoration and adornment continued until 64 C.E. Site of God’s presence and home of the official cult, the earthly temple was believed to be a reflection of a heavenly model upon which it was based (Exodus 26:30; Revelation 3:12, 7:15, 11:19, 14:15, etc.). A relatively simply structure, the temple’s most important area was that of the debir or sanctuary. “In this,” said Josephus, “stood nothing whatever. Unapproachable, inviolable, invisible to all, it was called the holy of holies” (War, 5:219). Measuring 30 feet on a side, the cube-shaped room was empty and dark, separated from the hekal or holy place by a double-curtained veil. The holy of holies was entered only by the high priest and then only once a year on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the tenth day of the seventh month (Leviticus 16: 1 ff).

Dressed in fine linen vestments, the high priest would sacrifice two goats as an offering for sin, a ram as a holocaust for the community and a bullock as an offering for his own sin. Lots were cast for the two goats in order to discern which one would be for Yahweh and which for Azazel. The blood of the sin offering for Yahweh would be sprinkled on the sanctuary, the altar and in the holy of holies. The other goat for Azazel would be driven out to the desert after the community’s sins had been confessed. Laying hands on the goat signified a symbolic burdening of the animal with the guilt of the nation, as a scapegoat. Thus, it was believed that the sins of the people and their priest were atoned in the eyes of the Lord.

When the author of the letter to the Hebrews wrote today’s pericope, he certainly had at the basis of his thought the Old Testament ritual of the Day of Atonement and the holy of holies. So, too, his readers would have been familiar with the ancient rite. Therefore the Hebrews’ author was able to refer to the temple, the priesthood and the religious observances of Israel to explain analogously the superiority of the heavenly sanctuary (over the earthly temple), of the priesthood of Jesus (over that of the earthly high priest) and of Jesus’ sacrifice (over that of the animal offerings) as an atonement for sin. Unlike the high priest who entered a “manmade sanctuary” and a “mere copy of the true one” (v. 24), Jesus entered the true and lasting sanctuary, the heavenly and real presence of God. Moreover, by his entering, he opened the way for all the redeemed to enter also.

Finally, the Hebrews’ author compared (v. 28) the high priest’s emergence from the holy of holies after the sacrifice to that of Jesus’ second appearance at the parousia. Just as the high priest’s work and his yearly term of office culminated in his service on the Day of Atonement, so too, Jesus’ perfect sacrifice will be crowned with all glory at his second advent. However, all of Christ’s saving activity must be understood as eschatological: “He has appeared, at the end of the ages to take away sins” (v. 26). By his death on the cross Christ brought near the one God and the end time, the parousia--so near as to allow believers to begin to live here and now the joyful life of those who have been forgiven: the life of salvation.

Mark 12:38-44.

A composite of two different aspects of Jesus’ teaching, today’s gospel is linked, albeit loosely and somewhat illogically, by the “stichwort principle.” The same catchword widow appears in each unit (vv. 38-40, 41-44) and, if you will, “stitches” the units together. The homilist may wish to use the stories as foils for one another contrasting the undesirable demeanor and attitude of the scribes to that of the admirable widow. Evidently, this was the evangelist’s (or his redactor’s) intention in juxtaposing the units as he did.

With this harsh denunciation of the scribes (vv. 30-40), The Jerusalem controversy episodes have concluded and the scenario has been set for the impending official rejection Of Jesus by the Sanhedrin (14:53-65). Having exposed the teaching of the scribes for its shallowness and inadequacy (vv. 35-37), Jesus proceeded to castigate them for their behavior. Gaffney believes the representation of the scribes as both “pompous asses and avaricious hypocrites is undoubtedly a caricature” since the faults described seem to be those of all religious elitists with legalistic tendencies, whether of the Jewish or Christian persuasion. Although Jesus and the scribes had their differences (2:6-7, 3:22, 7:1-13, 9:14, 11:2733), most scholars agree that the extremely scathing nature of the remarks is reflective of church-synaogogue conflict of the evangelist’s contemporary situation (60s C.E.).

In a society where the majority of ordinary people were not literate, the scribes were a breed apart. Educated and trained in the law, they had spent years of hard work building their reputations as experts in the law. Respected as teachers and sought after for their advice, the scribes were admired by simpler people who presumed their behavior was inspired by purely religious motives. According to Strack-Billerbeck’s Kommentar (11, 30-33), the robe (v. 38) in which the scribes paraded around was intended for times of prayer or was to be worn when giving a judgment, performing a vow or visiting the sick. An outer garment that distinguished its wearer by its unusual (and impractical) length and voluminousness, the robe was evidently flaunted by the scribes in a sort of vain self-aggrandizement. Attached to the robe in compliance with the prescription in the book of Numbers (15:38) were tassels, whose purpose was to remind the Jews of their responsibilities as God’s people. Obviously, Jesus (or Mark) did not condemn the actual wearing of the robe (or its tassels) because Jesus himself was known to wear one as he ministered to the sick (Mark 5:27, Matthew 9:20). Rather, it was the attitude and self-seeking with which the special garments were worn that Jesus censured.

In the synagogue, the “front seats” were located directly in front of the ark that contained the sacred scrolls of the law and the prophets. Anyone seated there would be facing the congregation, in plain view of all. At banquets, the seat Of greatest honor was that to the right of the host. The next most prized seat was at the host’s left, and so on, alternating down the line. All in attendance at the banquet knew the host’s opinion of each guest from the position of the seats assigned. Again, the criticism here is due to the vanity with which the scribes sought honors for themselves.

This same attitude probably fostered the ostentatious Practice of reciting long prayers. Such prayers, prayed aloud, were shaped more by human respect and pride than humility and trust in God. In the criticism concerning the scribe’s abuse of widows and their savings, Jesus was not alone. Josephus the Jewish historian commented, “The Pharisees valued themselves highly upon their exact skill in the law of their fathers and made believe that they were highly favored by God ... they inveigled certain women into their schemes and plottings.”

Having thus made short shrift of the scribes who were considered among the leaders of the community, Jesus then proceeded to praise one who was considered among the least members of society in the ancient Near Eastern world, the widow. In the temple’s court were some 13 trumpet-shaped receptacles, each of which was designated for a certain type of offering, e.g., incense, grain offering, oil, etc. While the wealthy people had indeed been generous in their giving, the widow went beyond the generosity and gave all she had. The copper coins in question were lepta, the smallest in circulation. Two lepta were equivalent to one quadrans in Roman currency and, according to Juvenal, it took at least 100 quadrans to pay for a decent meal! The fact that the woman had and gave two is significant. Though a mere pittance, she could have kept one coin for herself and her needs, but she gave all.

Mark signals the special and exemplary quality of the woman’s behavior by telling his readers that “Jesus called his disciples over” (v. 43) for further instruction. Similar stories and examples were given by other rabbis to their students. In the lesson of the widow who gave her all with utter abandon to God, Jesus taught the final, formal lesson of discipleship to his followers. The ultimate lesson would be taught in the complete self-abandonment of Jesus to his Father on the cross.

Although the symbols of the illustration here are monetary ones (coins), the lesson goes far more deeply to touch on attitude and motivation. The scribes may have performed great and good deeds; but without a heart conformed to God’s truth, their deeds remained just that--a performance. Although the widow’s offering was observably insignificant, the true value of her gift was of immeasurable worth and known only to God, It was this last lesson in discipleship that would help the disciples to understand the value of the cross and the immeasurable worth of the gift of oneself.

1. Those who seem the least able to give are often the most generous (1 Kings).

2. Christ’s unique sacrifice can never be repeated, only remembered--with gratitude and love and in fellowship (Hebrews).

3. A gift given for appearance’s sake benefits neither giver nor recipient (Mark).

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Illustration prepared by Julie Lonneman.

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