32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
2006


Simple Faith
(Readings: 1 Kings 17:10-16; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44)
Introduction to Mass
The gospel passage today is the well-known incident of "the widow's mite". Jesus draws his followers' attention to the simple religious devotion of a poor widow making a small financial contribution to the Temple, while at the same time he rounds angrily on the self-appointed religious experts, the Pharisees, who seem to him to be completely self-regarding in the showy way they practice their faith in God.
To begin Mass let's think of the ways we ourselves lack simplicity in our attitude towards God, and ask him for his pardon and healing.
Homily
The gospel passage this Sunday illustrates two facets of Jesus' spirituality and two aspects of the Reign of God which he proclaimed in his teaching and preaching.
One the one hand Christ denounces the showy and elaborate religious practices of the Pharisees, which in his judgement are rooted in a desire to glorify themselves rather than God, a desire to make other people admire them as holy individuals or experts in God.
Their spiritual lives are poisoned at source, Jesus believes, and his verdict on their chances in the afterlife seems rather savage: "The more severe will be the sentence they receive". Sincerity or falseness in our attitude to God is obviously a subject Christ took very seriously, something he regarded as decisive, in fact, for salvation.
But then, on the other hand, he speaks very affirmatively and even tenderly about the poor widow who makes a small financial offering to the Temple treasury, an offering which was tiny in terms of monetary value but which represented an enormous sacrifice in terms of the widow's material resources, and therefore expressed great devotion to God.
The poor widow doesn't speak and we never learn her name, as if to emphasise her lowliness and her lack of significance by any worldly scale of values. But of course those are the very qualities that elicit Jesus' sympathy. Despite her poverty and the anxieties that brings, God is at the centre of her life and contributing to the House of God - the Temple - symbolises the devotion and gratitude she feels towards God.
Personally I've always tended to see this gospel character, the poor widow, as a representative of all the ordinary, unpretentious people who don't think about God in great complicated terms but relate to God with an attitude of simple devotion and use received or conventional religious practices to express their devotion.
I think the fact that Jesus drew his followers' attention to the widow's action, and the fact that St. Mark thought this incident was important enough to include in his gospel, makes the poor widow one of those gospel figures that all future believers are meant to imitate.
The truth is, it's possible to be too sophisticated and too complicated, intellectually, in our faith in God and when we are, we make it more difficult for ourselves to genuinely know him, not easier. It's possible to tangle ourselves up in all sorts of ideas and theories about God and actually close ourselves off from his influence rather than opening ourselves up.
To be receptive to God we need simplicity, and we need to take steps to cultivate simplicity: both in regard to how we think about God and in our attitudes to other people and the values we live our lives by.
We're all familiar with the type of person who is a great theorizer about human nature and moral behaviour - someone who can sort everything out tidily in his or her head - but whose actual character and treatment of other people is underdeveloped, inconsistent, fragmented.
There's something repellent about that sort of person. Whereas we instinctively warm to the type of person who might not have much education, who doesn't have any great theories to offer about life, but whose character has been formed around basic values like kindness and sympathy and generosity.
The poor widow in the gospel reminds me of what one of the Christian mystics from the Middle Ages said: that we can never grasp God by thinking, only by loving.
At the same time it makes me think of what Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest Catholic thinkers in the history of the Church, said at the end of life: that compared to the actual experience of being close to God, all his massive writings and theological speculations were just "so much straw".
It's not a matter of being unintelligent in our faith - it's always good to ask questions and look for answers that make sense when we're dealing with God just as when we're dealing with any subject. It's more a matter of realising that the limitations of cleverness and intellectual sophistication. They're never enough by themselves to enable us to make contact with God and grow in our relationship with him.
Sometimes, in fact, our analysing and theorizing puts up a barrier to the action of God, because like any relationship between persons, our relationship with God involves our emotions, our will, our temperament, all the experiences we've had in our lives: it's never just a matter of ideas and theories in our minds.
One of the distinguishing features of Catholicism, maybe more in the past but still to a large extent in the present as well, is that it's a religion for ordinary people. In fact, a lot of the popular devotions that are still so much a part of Catholicism for many people are ridiculed by "educated" types who have no patience with our outdated, superstitious "peasant" religion.
But the value of the popular devotions is that they appeal to all the different types of emotional character and temperament and they help different personalities to find a particular path towards God. Or, to put it another way, they highlight particular aspects of the message of salvation that appeal to particular individuals because of their particular temperament or life-experience.
People who have a "favourite" devotion can tell you why they like it in these sorts of terms, and why they find it helpful.
One of the examples of Catholic faith that I personally find very attractive is the sort to person who might be extremely clever and talented - some kind of great academic or highly specialised surgeon or something like that - who turns out to have quiet but deep faith in God, which they keep up by short, simple prayers that they say regularly or by some devotion like the rosary or a novena to a favourite saint.
These are the people who have managed to put their spiritual priorities in the right order. They've not allowed their cleverness or their talent to be a barrier to God. They've kept away from complication and pretentiousness in their relationship with God - and it's this kind of simplicity that we all need to foster, whether we're geniuses or not.
So those are my reflections on the example of the poor widow making her offering to the Temple - and also the counter-example of the Pharisees.
The Pharisees are pompous, pretentious and self-involved. Jesus dismisses them angrily as very far from God.
The widow on the other hand illustrates an important aspect of Christian discipleship, or a basic value that all followers of Christ should try to imitate: reliance on God in all the hardships and worries of our lives, expressed through the ordinary practices of religion and with simplicity and uncomplicated devotion.