32nd Sunday Year B

See Commentary on (Mark 12:38-44) in Mark 12:35-44

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.

Homily 2 - 2012

The usual interpretation of today's Gospel passage would have Jesus admiring the generosity of the widow.  Without calling her generosity into question, a growing number of scholars read Jesus' comment differently - especially when the context of the passage is taken into consideration.

The passage is sandwiched precisely between two quite relevant events.  Before it, Jesus had just lamented that some of the scribes tended not only to occupy the moral high ground but also to devour the property of widows.  In the incident that immediately follows, Jesus prophesied that the whole temple complex and all it stood for would soon be destroyed.  [Indeed, his saving death and resurrection would make temple worship irrelevant.]  Seen in this light, the incident can be taken as a sad commentary on the power of the religious institution to exploit the gullible, and particularly the poor and devout.

However, the power to exploit the poor and powerless was not reserved only to religious institutions of Israel.  It extends in different ways to all institutions and across history.  Jesus' consistent concern was for the poor.  In his day, widows were particularly vulnerable because they had little opportunity to earn their living reputably, and no one to defend their interests before the law.  Today, on the world scale, the poorest of the poor consistently get a raw deal at the expense of international money markets, global agribusiness and corporate monopolies.  The plight of the poorest in some nations is worsened by the sometimes rampant corruption and blatant self-interest of their own ruling elites.

Let us hope that we as Church become increasingly alert to the constant danger.

The clerical sexual abuse scandal is an instance of the unfortunate dynamic.  Too many of us were gullible enough to presume that clergy were above reproach, certainly on major issues.  Many were unwilling to think otherwise, or at least did not feel free enough to take action.  In the case of those scribes whom Jesus criticised, he was angered not only by their heedless and heartless exploitation, but particularly by their ostentatious claim to personal piety and moral uprightness.

In the present sexual abuse revelations, what particularly upsets many people is not only the abuse of power and privilege on the part of the offenders but the Church's perceived habitual taking of the moral high-ground on many matters under public debate in the community.

A similar dynamic can be seen operating elsewhere as well. The area of gambling, for example, is a case in point, particularly on-line gambling where people are so open to thoughtless, hurried, on-the-spot decisions that can be easily exploited.  As well, poker-machines prove to be so addictive for many people.  Consistently, they have been concentrated in the poorest socio-economic districts.  Figuring among the biggest owners of poker machines is one of the major supermarket chains.  Ironically, the same supermarket seeks to project its corporate image as family-friendly.

Unfortunately, to compound the injustice, governments generally across the nation have become dependent for much of their income on the gambling industry.  And they can then castigate the poor for their inability to manage their incomes responsibly.  Echoes everywhere of the Jerusalem scribes!!  I have no idea what might be the answer to the power of institutions.  I am not sure that Jesus did either, beyond exposing what he could, being prepared to pay the price of his concern for the poor … and face into death.

A strong dose of humility would do all of us good.

Homily 3 - 2015

Eyes that see! I used to think that today’s Gospel was primarily an illustration of Jesus’ power to read people’s hearts and to see the inner meaning of their external actions and the dynamic at work there – the apparent generosity of the rich, including the scribes, flamboyant in their liberality but sacrificing nothing, compared to the real generosity of the poor widow, giving little but sacrificing everything, all she had to live on.

Some commentators even read Mark’s placing of the incident right at the end of Jesus’ public ministry, just before his eventual arrest and crucifixion, as a subtle symbol of Jesus’ personal readiness to sacrifice everything, to give even his own life, for the true peace of the world.

However, there is a growing number of scholars today who read the incident differently. They see the drama being enacted there around the temple treasury as an illustration precisely of what Jesus had been criticising the scribes for – swallowing the property of widows while making a show of lengthy prayers. He saw it clearly as one more instance of the continuing exploitation of the poor and the powerless, a heartless instance of unconscious brainwashing, of the working out of social and economic systems that favoured the wealthy but cruelly oppressed the poor.  Like most systems, it operated largely unconsciously – and all the more effectively for that.

The Spring Racing Carnival is almost over. We can now get down seriously to our national festival of consumerism, connected, of all things, with Christmas and the birth of Christ.  Perhaps, some of us might hear the occasional small voice inviting us instead to put Christ back into Christmas. Which Christ? the consumer Christ? Or Christ on the side of the poor and exploited? the Christ imploring us to have eyes that see? the Christ seeking to free us from the largely unconscious dynamic hidden behind society’s frantic pursuit to have more, to upgrade, to look good, to be with it. It is easy to overlook the question – at whose cost? Most of us don’t see much obvious poverty, much blatant exploitation. Or, if we do, somehow it is easy to ignore. The sweat shops from whose exploited labour we benefit, the working poor who make possible the extremes of capitalism we enjoy, who pay the heaviest price of the large-scale devastation of the world’s environment, are concentrated mostly overseas, out of sight.

They have put in money they had over, but she from the little she had has put in everything she possessed, all she had to live on – The more severe will be the sentence they receive.

Did Jesus say that last bit vindictively? Did he want those men who would soon torture and kill him, to suffer? It seems not. As he died, he prayed, Father, forgive them. They know not what they are doing. Jesus does not want people to suffer, unconsciously complicit in their own dissatisfaction, their gnawing emptiness, their driven restlessness. Typically, significant sin is mostly unconscious. But whether we are aware of our deeper sin or not, it is inevitably destructive, oppressive, firstly of others, the unseen, the unnoticed, even the sometimes complicit, but also of ourselves. 

Our world is so blessed to have Pope Francis. I am constantly thankful for the surprise worked on us by the Holy Spirit. How could those cardinals have elected him? Where did he come from?  He is such a breath of fresh air, as welcome as he was unexpected.

In this nation which, for all its consuming, is obviously unsatisfied, each of us can be, like Francis, a calm presence of peace. We can be a life-giving, counter-cultural beacon in a too often lost and frantic world. It would be wonderful truly to bring Christ back into Christmas. To be that life-giving, counter-cultural beacon, Pope Francis suggests that we become a contemplative people. If we stop, we may find that deep down we yearn to be precisely that.

Homily 4 - 2018 

As we heard in today’s Gospel, Jesus pulled no punches when he criticised the Jerusalem scribes,“Beware of the scribes who like to walk about in long robes, to be greeted obsequiously in the market squares, to take the front seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at banquets; these are the men who swallow the property of widows while making a show of lengthy prayers.”

Human nature does not change all that much. Within the last month or two, Pope Francis wrote a letter addressed to the laypeople of the Church. Referring to a Report recently published in the United States, he commented: In recent days, a report was made public which detailed the experiences of at least a thousand survivors, victims of sexual abuse, the abuse of power and of conscience at the hands of priests over a period of approximately seventy years. The heart-wrenching pain of these victims, which cries out to heaven, was long ignored, kept quiet or silenced. But their outcry was more powerful than all the measures meant to silence it …. 

He went on: With shame and repentance, we acknowledge as [a Church] community that we were not where we should have been, that we did not act in a timely manner, realizing the magnitude and the gravity of the damage done to so many lives. We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them.

He then named the problem as Clericalism, and asserted: To say “no” to abuse is to say an emphatic “no” to all forms of clericalism.

Looking to the future, he wrote: It is impossible to think of a conversion of our activity as a Church that does not include the active participation of all the members of God’s People. Indeed, whenever we have tried to replace, or silence, or ignore … the People of God, we end up creating communities, projects, theological approaches, spiritualities and structures without roots, without memory, without faces, without bodies and ultimately, without lives.

Back here in Australia, meanwhile, Australia’s Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse had already issued its report last December after five years of hearings and investigation It had concluded that clericalism is at the centre of a tightly interconnected cluster of contributing factors to abuse within the Catholic Church. It described clericalism as: a sense of entitlement, superiority and exclusion, and abuse of power.

An American woman theologian wisely commented: … clericalism hurts everyone: The laity is victimized and infantilized; the clergy is isolated and expected to be superhuman.

In relation to clericalism, Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, head of the Australian Episcopal Conference, was recently quoted as saying: There will … have to be a change in the culture associated with the Catholic priesthood... Part of that change will involve… a greater sharing of responsibility with laypeople - which in turn requires a reconsideration of our structures of decision-making.

And here now are you, the small Catholic community in Ballan, wrestling with how to continue to face your immediate future without the presence of a resident priest. In some ways it is an exciting time in the story of our Church. You are not alone. Already in the west and north of our diocese, there have been a number of small catholic communities like you responding to this new situation for a number of years. Some have been doing it better than others.

I believe that the Holy Spirit gifts every community with the people and capacities it needs, not just to survive or to limp along, but somehow to thrive. But you need the courage to think differently, to dream or, more to the point, to learn or be helped to discern the presence among you of God’s guiding and empowering Spirit. One thing is certain: however you choose to continue your mission to the world here in Ballan, and to structure yourselves accordingly, steer clear of any new form of clericalism.