32nd Sunday Year B - Homily 1

Homily 1 - 2006

Widows figure prominently in today’s Scripture readings – perhaps not surprisingly. Still today, the victims of the extremes of poverty and oppression around the world are largely women. Global poverty too often bears a female face.  Men fight the wars, but those wounded, the raped, the survivors left to deal with the ravaged fields and destroyed infrastructure are overwhelmingly the women: the widows and the orphans.

In both the First Reading and the Gospel, the widows were generous women – as is still so often the case: despite an uncaring world, they keep caring.  The Responsorial Psalm that we recited together – a hymn sung frequently by the ancient Jews – also mentioned the widow and orphan.  The Psalm was a wonderful song of praise of God - the sort of praise sung loudly in the only prayer we know from the lips of Mary of Nazareth, the Mother of Jesus - the prayer we call the Magnificat.  The Psalm praises God because God is just to the oppressed, gives bread to the hungry, sets prisoners free, raises up those bowed down, protects the stranger and upholds the widow and orphan.

Do we spontaneously praise God much? Do we praise God for these same reasons?  I suppose that we talk often enough of the mercy of God, but sometimes in a kind of self-centred, self-interested way: God has mercy on me; God forgives my sin.  The Psalmist’s reasons for praising God – Mary’s reasons for praising God – can seem peripheral to our real faith life: good in themselves, but sort of extras. Perhaps we are more sophisticated than the Psalmist (and Mary).

These days it seems clear enough that God doesn’t give bread to the hungry, set prisoners free, raise up the bowed down, protect the stranger or uphold the widow and orphan.  The hungry of the world are largely left by the wealthy nations to die unnoticed; the strangers are turned away, at least from our shores; the widows and orphans have to look after themselves or they go the way of the hungry, the stranger and the rest who are bowed down and oppressed.

Things become different only when people like you and I get properly attuned to God, acquire the mind and heart of God, and accept the invitation of Christ to be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful.  Justice and mercy are not peripheral to being Catholic – they touch the essence of the God whom we love and worship – as Mary knew, she who heard the Word of God and kept it.

The Jewish people kept singing the psalms that exalted the God who cared for the powerless, the widow and orphan. We recite them; they sang them. Some, like the one we have today, became the forerunners of the great tradition of protest songs. Even when their own kings oppressed them mercilessly, when their land was ethnically cleansed by the Babylonians and they were deported as slaves, when later their leaders, their chief priests and their scribes were among the guilty who swallowed the property of widows, they kept singing of their God who cared for them.

And their irrepressible song kept alive a sense of their dignity; it kept alive their hope, and it became a constant call to those who were open to discover the heart of God, to make it their own and to act accordingly.  Firmly planted in that tradition, and buoyed up by that same hope for change - for universal justice and profound mercy - stood the Jesus we love.

Mark had opened his Gospel with Jesus proclaiming that the Kingdom of God was close at hand and calling people to believe the Good News and, in line with that, to change – to repent. With one or two exceptions every miracle that Jesus worked was precisely for people on the margins.  Mark climaxes the teaching section of Jesus’ life with today’s Gospel passage - a clear plea , and warning, not to get religion wrong. It is not about looking good or appearing to be pious – like the scribes. Rather it is about showing the heart of God to an oppressed and lost world, and being open to pay the price.