Our Gospel today, as Pope Francis mentions in this week’s Spiritual Reflection, is the last of a series of teachings that Jesus gave in the Temple. Jesus had triumphantly entered the city of Jerusalem and spent his final week of public ministry preaching and teaching in the Temple precincts.
The Temple of Jerusalem was the pinnacle of Jewish life. It was the preeminent sacred place for prayer and worship, the place where the sacrifices prescribed by God were offered to him. The Temple was also the center of Jewish culture, the best representation of their identity as the Chosen People of God. It was ingrained in Jewish culture to always set aside the best for God. Thus, the Temple was a grand and opulent compound. It is not surprising that those who served in the Temple preferred rich and luxurious surroundings. They could always claim that it was all for the glory of God – even if it was often more for their own honor and comfort. One such group among the upper echelons of Jewish society was the scribes, who are the target of Jesus’ withering criticism in today’s Gospel.
Jesus starts off with a sharp warning: “Beware!” He describes the lives of the scribes and their practice of wearing fancy clothes and seeking social distinction. But Jesus does not stop there. He goes on to expose an evil that is hidden behind their grandiose appearance: “they devour the houses of widows.” That is, they take advantage of widows’ weak social position for their own financial gain. In those days, a widow was particularly vulnerable, with no social status and no support other than what may have been left by her husband. The scribes zeroed in on this limited and dwindling means of survival and tried to convince widows to offer what they had as contributions to the Temple, for the glory of God! And to show that they were holy and therefore trustworthy, the scribes made a public display of their long prayers. Because they exploited the weak in the name of God, Jesus declares: “they will receive a very severe condemnation.”
The scribes’ practice of sacrificing others’ welfare for their own benefit is countered by the way of Christ, who sacrifices himself for the salvation of all. Today’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews honors him as the model of true sacrifice, worthy of the true temple of God. Jesus Christ is the true high priest, who offers not the blood of animals but his own Blood, a sacrifice that uplifts rather than exploits. The Temple priests had to make their offerings repeatedly, but Jesus has offered himself once and for all. It is a sacrifice of total self-giving, the gift of a God who empties himself of his very life in order to fill us all with new life.
This spirit of total self-gift is reflected in the two widows that we find in today’s readings. These two women belong to the very class of people whom the scribes are so willing to exploit. The widow of Zarephath in the first reading lives in abject poverty. She and her son are down to their final meal, bracing themselves to face inevitable starvation. The widow in the Gospel is likewise one of the poorest of the poor; her two small coins are all she has.
What a sharp contrast! On one hand, the proud ostentation of the elite who are served in the Temple, and on the other hand, the humble poverty of the widows who give themselves in selfless service. One relies on pretense, the other relies on providence. Jesus condemns one and honors the other. In doing so, he reveals the very spirit of the Lord, acclaimed in today’s Psalm. Truly, Jesus “sustains the fatherless and the widow” while “the way of the wicked he thwarts.” In the widow of Zarephath, the Lord “gives food to the hungry,” while for the widow at the Jerusalem Temple, the Lord secures justice.
But how can it be justice for a poor widow to give up her whole livelihood? The virtue of justice simply means giving to each what is his due: to God what is due to God and to others what is due to others. By her giving her all to God, the poor widow at the Temple is fully entrusting herself to God’s providence. This is a just act because she is acknowledging God as the one who provides and takes care of her. She honors the same God who did not allow the jar of flour to go empty nor the jug of oil to run dry for the widow of Zarephath.
These women of faith show us how to trust in God, how to let him reign in our lives as our Provider and Protector. Truly, they are blessed because they have taken on the attitude of the “poor in spirit,” the anawim. The Kingdom of God is already theirs because they belong entirely to him.
In my self-sufficiency and pride, how do I take advantage of the poor and outcast? How is the spirit of total self-giving reflected in my life of service? What hinders me from trusting fully in Jesus and giving myself completely to him?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 17, no. 8. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.