Mark 12:38-44 (32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time)
I have always been struck that the poor widow Jesus notices in the temple had two coins. If she had been more reasonable, more prudent, she could have given one, and kept the other. Even that would have been a very generous donation: 50% of all her belongings. If anyone were to donate half of his or her possessions, that act would certainly result in enormous changes in one’s lifestyle, would surely hurt. And yet, this foolish widow holds nothing back, gives two coins, 100%, “all she had.”
Her foolishness is heightened when one considers whom she gave her all to. She contributes to the temple treasury, to a religious establishment that is led by hypocritical, self-absorbed, exploitative leaders. Jesus has just warned the crowds to “beware of the scribes,” the religious-legal experts, who pretend to be pious, but who crave honor and status, and worse, “devour the houses of widows.” Has the widow just given everything simply to support a corrupt institution, unworthy of her gift?
How does one make sense of this absence of prudence and reason, this lack of good sense on the part of the widow? And why does Jesus call his disciples together to pay attention to this foolish behavior? I don’t think Jesus is recommending financial support for morally bankrupt institutions. He does not praise the woman for giving to the temple.
What might help is a famous scene from Act II of Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons. Thomas More, once chancellor of Henry VIII, is brought very low because of his refusal to swear to the Oath of Succession, which recognizes the marriage between King Henry and Anne Boleyn, and in so doing, repudiates the authority of the Pope. His wife Alice and daughter Margaret visit More in prison, to urge him to save himself: “Say the words of the oath and think otherwise,” Margaret advises him. When More refuses, Margaret, appalled by her father’s impractical idealism, cries out passionately: “But in reason! Haven’t you done as much as God can reasonably want?” More responds quietly: “Well . . . finally . . . it isn’t a matter of reason; finally it’s a matter of love.”
“Finally, it isn’t a matter of reason; finally it’s a matter of love.”
The foolishness of the widow is the foolishness of love. One who loves truly and deeply gives prodigally, liberally, uncalculatingly, even if the beloved is imperfect, flawed, unworthy of such generosity. In the end, I think Jesus singles out the poor widow because he recognizes in her a kindred spirit. This scene in the temple takes place a few days before Jesus himself goes to his cross, giving everything, holding nothing back, out of compassion for a corrupt, undeserving humanity.
It is interesting that Jesus has to call his disciples together to pay attention to this vulnerable, socially insignificant woman. She is a nobody, and her contribution, in terms of quantity, pathetic, worth almost nothing. No one but Jesus perceives what giving these two coins cost her. It was, no doubt, much easier to pay attention to the major players in the temple: the learned if self-absorbed religious professionals decked out in their fine robes; the rich, dazzling all by the munificence of their benefactions. Perhaps, we present-day disciples are also being invited to see those who are usually invisible, the foolish givers of our world.
Last Sunday, 1 November 2015, in the city of Padua, a 67-year old Italian Jesuit named Paolo Bizetti was ordained Bishop for the tiny, numerically insignificant diocese of Anatolia in Turkey. Anatolia has only 2,800 Catholics and 6 priests, living in a predominantly Muslim country rife with tensions. Anatolia has not had a bishop for 5 years. The last bishop was murdered in 2010, and understandably, not many have been eager to take his place. Yet, when Fr. Bizetti was told that Pope Francis was looking for a Jesuit to be bishop in this frontier mission, and that he was being considered, Fr. Bizetti, no longer a young man, readily and peacefully accepted. That a man close to 70 years old should accept a new assignment, involving learning a complex and difficult language, adjusting to a completely different culture, fraught with tension and possible danger, seems more than slightly crazy. The only way to make sense of this is to recall the foolishness of love.
Two weeks ago, my younger brother died. I know it will embarrass her for me to share this, but the widow in the Gospel makes me think of his widow. During the weeks that my brother was confined in the hospital, first in a regular room, and then in the ICU, my sister-in-law was tireless and completely given to supporting my brother, even when the pain and the uncertainty made him irritable and testy. She looked for second, third, fourth opinions. She met doctors, negotiated with nurses, bought supplies and food, supported and prepared her children, slept on the floor of the ICU waiting room, rather than go home to the comfort of their nearby home. Her only thought was what would make my brother well. Even when difficult choices had to be made towards the end, she considered, not what would make her happy, but what my brother would have liked. I was deeply moved by her total dedication. Once again, I witnessed the foolishness of love.
In a homily some years ago, the Jesuit Superior General, Fr. Adolfo Nicolas, paraphrased the Sufi mystic and poet Rumi, in a way that perhaps summarizes what the Lord might be saying to us today:
‘This is the festival of love.
Give it all.
Or look for another festival.’
Might there be too much reason, too much “prudence” and self-interested calculation in the way I give of myself? In what areas of my life and to which persons might the Lord be calling me to be more generous, more foolishly loving, like the poor widow, like Jesus himself?