Homily for the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2012
Our first reading introduces us to a widow in crisis. Her words reflect her despair: “I was collecting a couple of sticks to go and prepare something for myself and my son; when we have eaten it, we shall die." She sounds entirely defeated – overwhelmed and overcome by the desperation of her situation.
While we may not have faced circumstances that are as severe as the widow, we can all identify to an extent, at least, with her exasperation, can’t we? With that feeling that more is being asked than we can give: A co-worker is saying something outrageous for the thousandth time. A baby is up again screaming in the middle of the night. The project that is due in a few hours was erased from the hard drive. Illness or old age has made a simple task into an ordeal. Someone is yelling because despite best intentions the ball was dropped. A loved one deprives us of their affection and leaves us feeling alone and unwanted.
In those dark moments, life can begin to appear to us to be just a prolonged experience of having things taken away. Take, take, take – why is God taking everything away that I care about? Doesn’t he love me?
It was into this kind of desperation that Isaiah entered when he encountered that poor widow in Zarephath. With gentleness, he reassured the widow: “Do not be afraid – instead of clinging to what you love, who you love – give what is asked by God and trust that your sacrifice will not be in vain, you will not be abandoned in your need.”
And we need this gentle encouragement, don’t we?
Because how easy it is to begin to cling to the things of this world, the gifts we have been given, as if they were meant to be eternal! How easily this gravely mistaken, this irrational expectation, can sneak its way into the back of our minds. And when it does, increasingly the many gifts we receive from our loving Father become a source of agony and pain. God’s gifts to us in this world are temporary - a mere foreshadowing, a preparation for the eternal life, for the great gifts that he has in store for us, that he wants to give us. And so when we cling, we cling to nothing but shadows, to sand that slips between our fingers. And what results? Anger and frustration and bitterness and resentment start to take hold. Fear and anxieties begin to overshadow the experience of life. And often a kind of denial sets in: a life occupied by mindless entertainment, gossip, small-talk, and political junkying , escape to the sensual and self-medication - anything to avoid the passing reality of this world.
Yet the more we cling or try to avoid letting go, the more we are deprived of peace. And our faith is seriously compromised because rather than perceiving God as he truly is, the giver of all good gifts, the things of this world distort our sight so that God is perceived as a threat to happiness, the one who takes away what we love and destroys what we cherish.
Jesus is the truth and the light: he comes to free us from the deceptions of the evil one and to show us the truth about this passing world. In the Gospel today Jesus encourages us, he seeks to inspire us to follow the true way to the Father, the way to find lasting joy in this life. He teaches us that the earthly gifts that God gives us are not meant to be clung to, as if they contained within themselves the key to happiness, but that they are meant to be freely offered back to our Father in love and so become a means of participation in the love of the Triune God and source of lasting peace and joy for us.
And so we see why Christ was so hard on the scribes and Pharisees: their actions demonstrated that their sacrifices, their pious and religious practices were superficial and not true offerings, that their hearts were still clinging to the things of this earth: to wealth, to reputation, to comfort or pleasure.
They were offerings made in view of earthly success, not made for the love of God. That is why in another place Jesus instructs us to make offerings, to pray and give alms in secret – because he wants us to have the joy that he has, the joy of a pure offering that is not tainted by self-interest. True happiness is found in being able to offer God something personal, a real part of ourselves and to offer it to him and to him alone: and that is the joy that he wants us to have, the joy of his Son Jesus who offers his whole life to the Father for our salvation freely and without condition. Body and Blood, soul and divinity, Jesus offers himself to the Father - not resenting his Father for the cross or us, his brothers and sisters who he heals and strengthens through his sacrifice. No - he offers his life to the Father for us and it gives him joy to offer it because he loves us. For Christ, the cross was an invitation, granted a painful and scary one, but an blessed invitation nonetheless, to show his love for the Father and for us.
That is what our Lord saw in those two small coins offered by the widow - love. He saw behind the coins to her heart, her livelihood that she was offering freely to God. And this from a woman from whom so much had already been taken.
Yet she showed no signs of resentment: we can almost hear her speak the words of Job, " the Lord gives, the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord." Jesus saw in her heart a sharing in his own sacred heart, his own love of the Father. The Scribes, the Pharisees, they were interested in what God could do for them in this world, in clinging to their titles and honor and comforts. But they had no love for God, they placed nothing of themselves on the altar of sacrifice. That is not the offering of a Christian, of that poor widow. St. Paul teaches us in our second reading, Christ came to cleanse us and gather us into the true offering of his body: the one pure and holy and sacrifice of love he offered to the Father on the cross.
And so every time we offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass it must be personal. And not only because we offer to the Father Christ's personal body and blood, soul and divinity. But also because his offering, of his life to the Father, like the offering of the widow, challenges and motivates and invites each of us: Will we work to freely offer our lives with him to the Father? Will we allow his offering to engage us personally – will we respond to his example by laying what is asked of us before the foot of the cross? Our hopes and dreams, our gifts and experiences, the crying baby in the middle of the night, the annoying co-worker, the frustrating homework, the lack of affection, the desire for comfort or esteem: whatever else we are tempted to cling to, from the little daily preferences even up to our very lives – will we bring all of that up here? Everything in this world can be, and is made to be, offered to God in love. Everything. But he will not force us. He wants us to follow the example of his Son, who freely offers his life on the cross in love. May God give us the wisdom and strength and perseverance to not cling to this life, but to follow Christ and offer it: freely, joyfully, and with great love.