Commentary on the Readings
32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year B
How much is the kingdom of heaven?
Exhortations to give alms are frequent in the Bible: “The upright man gives without stinting” (Prov 21:26). “Give your bread to those who are hungry, your clothes to those who are naked; give alms of everything you have over” (Tob 4:16).
If there is a price to pay to enter the kingdom of heaven, how much would it be? Will it be sufficient to give something in charity?
In one of his famous homilies (Hom. In Evangelia 5:1-3), Pope Gregory the Great (590-614) deals with the issue and says, “The kingdom of God is priceless; its worth all that you have;” then he illustrates his claim with examples from the gospel.
In the case of Zacchaeus, the entrance into the kingdom of heaven was paid “half of the property” he owned, because the other half served to repay four-fold to those he had defrauded (Lk 19:8).
In the case of Peter and Andrew, the kingdom of heaven was worth the nets and the boat, because the two brothers had no other (Mt 4:20).
The widow bought it for much less: only two mites (Lk 21:2).
Someone enters even by offering only a cup of cold water (Mt 10:42).
The price to pay is easy to establish: the kingdom of God is worth all that you have, little or much that be.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“The kingdom of God is a treasure that is priceless, to get it you have to give everything.”
The Canaanites, in whose land the Israelites had settled, worshiped Baal, the lord of rain, fertility and fecundity. His legendary headquarters was mount Safon that, with its top always shrouded in greyish clouds, silhouetted in the sky of Ugarit. His weapons were the lightning and the winds that trigger hurricanes that shatter the cedars of Lebanon, strip the forests and shake Hermon (Ps 29:5).
The underlying theme of all the books of the Old Testament is represented by the fight of the Lord, the jealous God of the Israelites, against Baal, the champion of the cosmic order adored by all peoples of the ancient Middle East.
At the time of the prophet Elijah, Israel, seduced by Queen Jezebel, had failed the faith of her fathers, and bended the knee to Baal, convinced that she would get heavy rains and abundant crops from him. Here, instead, as promised by the prophet Elijah, three years of drought, famine and pestilence. As always, the idol had seduced and promptly disappointed.
Faced with the lack of rainfall and the resulting disaster, King Ahab summoned his seers and commissioned them to identify those responsible. There was no need of divination, the culprit was quickly identified: “It was Elijah the prophet of God—the soothsayers of the court ensured—who provoked the wrath of Baal.”
Ahab ordered to track him down and put him to death.
It is at this point of Elijah’s story that the episode narrated in today’s reading is inserted.
To escape the wrath of the king, the prophet fled. He headed for the coast of Phoenicia and came to Zarephath, a town located eight miles south of Sidon, famous for the production of purple. At the gate of the city he met a poor widow gathering sticks with which to cook, for her son and herself, the last handful of flour that was left.
Realizing her desperate condition, Elijah did not have the courage to ask her more than a bit of water. However, as the woman walked away, he pleaded: “Bring me also a piece of bread.” He knew that that was all she had, but he dared ask her, and added: “For this is the word of the Lord, the God of Israel: The jar of meal shall not be emptied nor shall the jug of oil fail, until the day when the Lord sends rain to the earth” (v. 14).
The widow trusted the prophet, offered him what was asked and God blessed her generosity; she was granted her food for herself and the son during the time of drought.
From this touching story the sympathy of the Lord and the sacred author shines for this poor and unprotected woman.
Among all ancient peoples, wealth, success and well-being were considered blessings of the gods. In Israel, on the other hand, it was realized early on that the Lord turned his look of love on the weak, foreigners, orphans and widows. They, having nothing and no one to rely on, relied on God, and in their poverty, they were able to offer not only a part of what they possessed, not only the superfluous, but everything, even that which was essential to their lives.
The widow of Zarephath, “a heathen” who did not yet worship the Lord, but knew him only as “the God of Elijah,” has acted as a true Israelite. She belonged, without being aware of it, to the “poor and meek people who seek refuge in the Lord” (Zeph 3:12). She realized the ideal of the pious Israelite that the psalmists proclaim blessed: “Blessed is the one who finds shelter in him, for those who fear him do not live in want, those who seek the Lord lack nothing” (Ps 34:9-11).
Today, we continue to quietly talk of “priests” to indicate the presbyters, to refer to the ministers of the Eucharist and reconciliation; but the Council had the decency not to do it. It reserved the term “priest,” as does the New Testament, to Christ and the People of God, united with Christ in offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to the Father.
Today’s passage shows two reasons why Jesus is “the only true priest.”
The ancient priests offered their burnt offerings in a material temple, made of stone, as Jesus carries out his ministry in heaven, not into a sanctuary made by human hands (v. 24).
Then, the priesthood of the Old Covenant has for its goal the purification of the people from their sins. To cancel the sins, the high priest entered each year in the most sacred part of the temple, and there poured the blood of animals. He repeated the same ritual every year, which was not very effective. It did not obtain the forgiveness of sin. People continued to be evil and having need of atonement.
Jesus, instead, offered one perfect sacrifice. He has not shed the blood of animals, but has offered his own blood, and with his gesture of love has forever won sin (vv. 25-27). When he will be back again, he will not repeat a sacrifice, but will take people with him that his only sacrifice has freed from all sins.
The worst dangers are those well-hidden and well camouflaged, those that take people by surprise and unprepared. If Jesus recommends to his disciples, wholeheartedly, to be careful, to beware of a certain breed of people, it means that the pitfalls they tend to are extremely serious.
After a series of disputes with the Pharisees, Sadducees and Herodians in the temple of Jerusalem, Jesus makes a direct, brave and precise attack against the scribes and to make it more effective he recourses to satire, irony, in a language that is too provocative. This reveals how much he was concerned that some nefarious behavior could also infiltrate into the community of his disciples.
The scribes were originally appointed to draw up the documents of all kinds, but, after the exile in Babylon, they had become the official interpreters of the law of the Lord (Ezra 7:11) They were the authority in the field of legislation, judges in charge to deliver the sentences in the courts.
Their profession was legitimate, but Jesus had something to complain about their behavior.
The first accusation that he threw on them was about their “vanity, ostentation” (vv. 38-39). They were people who loved to show off their knowledge and their titles and to draw attention, as not to be confused with the people, with the ignorant people, they refrained from dressing like everyone else. They wore a uniform, “they enjoy walking around in long robes” (v. 38).
It was out of respect for their habit that people treated them with much respect, yielded them the way in the streets, reserved the first seats in the public places and in the synagogues, served them better and before the others in the market. They could not be greeted with a simple shalom. They demanded bows, hand-kissing and complete silence every time they opened their mouth, even just to breathe. When they did not receive these attentions of deference they become indignant.
The master thought this a ridiculous comedy and could not stand it. He was allergic to their uniforms because, as the etymology suggests, they are derived from the verb “to split.” They divide, separate, creating caste.
More than a sin, theirs was a disease, a pathology that could have been easily cured. What fed the vanity of the scribes was the servility of the naive people. By paying them respects and honors, they were convinced of giving glory to God. To get them to fall into line and let them experience the joy of being brothers, it would be enough that all behaved like Jesus, who did not reserve them any particular regard. He preferred the sinner and the marginalized to their friendship; he did not appeal to their recommendations and did not ask their support.
In front of the very clear behavior and language of the Master, one wonders how it could happen that in the church sometimes people are not aware of how anti-evangelical are the races to the first places, to titles and honors and the seeking of applauses and privileges. The world structured in a pyramidal hierarchy was definitely condemned by Christ and to want it restored is not a venial sin, but a frontal attack against the logic of the Gospel.
There is a greater offense that Jesus imputes to the rabbis: “They devour widow’s and the orphan’s goods” (v. 40). Widows, orphans and foreigners together, were the people that God had placed under his protection (Ps 146:9). Woe to whoever mistreats, commits injustice against them. The Lord had established: “You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger. You shall not harm the widow or the orphan. If you do harm them and they cry to me, I will hear them for I am full of pity” (Ex 22:20-26).
Jesus accused the scribes of “devouring the widows’ houses.” Probably they took advantage of the ingenuity of these simple and helpless women to snatch alms or to demand exorbitant fees to plead their cases in courts.
The exploitation of the weakest persons is the principle on which rests our competitive and quarrelsome world. It is from this principle that the society of smart people, which is anti-evangelical, arises. The poor, however, when they crave take the place of those who oppress them, they do not dream of a new world; they aspire only to perpetuate the old. They do not want to end the mindset of the “scribes,” but to take the place of the “scribes.” They wish the exchange of the parties, while Jesus wants the theatrical works, which has always been recited in the world, thrown in the trash.
The third accusation is even worse: “making a show of long prayers” (v. 40). They are not only exploiters of the weak, but recite a comedy: they show themselves in impeccable religious practices. They show proofs of great piety in order to convince all that the Lord is on their side. To judge them, contradict them, not submit to their will, not give them the honors they claim, means to stand against God.
The simple and sincere people cannot stand this hypocritical religion and at some point they get tired and may even abandon their faith. Who is to blame for these defections?
In contrast to the scribes, the people who dominate in society, in the second part of the passage (vv. 41-44) a model of authentic religiosity is introduced: a poor widow.
This is not the first time that, in the Gospel of Mark, women appeared whom Jesus regards with affection and admiration. He has already met one who, suffering from hemorrhage, approached him to touch the edge of his cloak. He recognized her faith: “Daughter, your faith has saved you” (Mk 5:34); He was astonished by the faith of the Syro-Phoenician, who declared herself satisfied with the crumbs that fall under the table prepared for the children. Deeply moved, Jesus exclaimed: “Woman, how great is your faith” (Mt 15:28; Mk 7:24-30).
These first two women are models of faith. The widow of today’s Gospel and she who, a few days later, anointed his head “with very expensive perfume, made of pure nard” (Mk 14:3) are models of generosity.
They are four exemplary figures, chosen by Mark to show how women, considered by all as the last, were instead the first (Mk 10:31).
They illustrate with their lives what true discipleship is.
The first feature is now highlighted by the behavior of the widow who, unlike the rabbis who flaunt their religion, performs her gesture without attracting anyone’s attention, without being noticed.
This woman did not know Jesus, did not listen to his teachings, did not respond to a call from him and was not his disciple. She did not follow him, as did the Twelve and many other women who accompanied him during the three years of public life (Lk 8:1-3), but behaves in an evangelical way, as Jesus advised: “When you give something to the poor do not have it trumpeted before you, as do those who want to be seen in the synagogues and in the street, in order to be praised by the people. If you give something… do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing so that your gift remains really secret” (Mt 6:1-4).
This widow is the image of those who, even today, having never read a page of the Gospel, docile to the Spirit, live in an evangelical manner.
The second characteristic of true love is to be total. The love of God must involve the whole person: “You shall love the Lord your God—Jesus ordered—with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mk 12:30) and the love of neighbor must also be without reservation.
The widow is presented as a model of this love. Unlike the rich who “threw in the treasury many coins, she did not put many, she threw all that she has, indeed, the Greek text specifies “she gave from her poverty and put in everything she had, her very living” (v. 44).
The disciple is not one who risks a part of himself or what he has, but sells all that he possesses to give to the poor and offers all his life as the Master did.
Even one who is poor, like the widow in today’s Gospel, is called to give everything. There is no one so poor that they don’t have something to offer, and no one so rich that they don’t need to receive from others. God has lavished gifts to his children, following the example of the Father who is in heaven, they do not retain them for themselves, but put them at the disposal of others.
For all of her love, the widow becomes not only the image of a true disciple, but also of God and Jesus Christ—as Paul points out—“although he was rich, he made himself poor to make us rich through his poverty” (2 Cor 8:9).
The place of the maximum revelation of God’s face is Calvary. That’s where God showed his identity. He does not pretend, offers, gives all of himself to people. He does not want people to bow down to him, but he wants them to kneel in front of the brothers and sisters. He does not ask them to give him their life, but that, with him, they make it available to the brothers and sisters.
The widow is the image of God and of Christ, because she is stripped of everything she owned and made it a gift to others.