Holy Spirit

ACTA COMMENTARY

THE SUNDAY LECTIONARY

THIRTY-SECOND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
YEAR B: YEAR OF MARK

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READINGS

A reading from the first book of the Kings 17:10-18

Responsorial Psalm Psalm 145:7-10. R/. v.2

A reading from the letter to the Hebrews 9:24-28

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Mark 12:38-44

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You always have the poor with you

You always have the poor with you. So said Jesus. When a woman came into the house of Simon the leper and poured a flask of very expensive perfumed oils over his head, some of those present indignantly complained:

“Why was the ointment wasted like that? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” And they were scolding her. Mark 14:4-5

But Jesus defended her action:

Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you wish, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me.
Mark 14:6-7

Do the words of Jesus about the poor sound callous or dismissive to your ears?

Since two of today’s readings are concerned with needy people, it will be worth our while to explore the Bible’s reflections on the poor. We all remember the first of the Beatitudes that opens the Sermon on the Mount in St Matthew’s Gospel:
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Matt 5:2
However, when we come to St Luke’s Gospel we are confronted with a very direct and very different statement:

Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours in the kingdom of God.
Luke 6:20

Notice the differences between these two reported statements of Jesus. An understanding of what the Bible teaches us about the poor is called for.

There shall be no poor among you …

… there shall be no poor among you; for the LORD will bless you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess — if only you will strictly obey the voice of the LORD your God, being careful to do all this commandment that I command you today. Deuteronomy 15:4-5

The context of this statement has to do with release from slavery but let it stand on its own for now. The writers of Deuteronomy imagine Moses addressing all the people he has led out of Egypt and brought to the borders of the promised land. In four long homilies he recalls in great detail all that the LORD God demands of these people if God is to be their God and they are to be God’s people. There is much in God’s teaching, not only in Deuteronomy but throughout the whole of the Bible, in both Old and New Testaments, concerning the poor. The statement “there shall be no poor among you” was a challenge in the days of Moses, in the days of Jesus, and it remains a challenge in our time and in our place.

If I may put words in God’s mouth, God’s position as expressed in the great Books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy is this:

I have brought you out of slavery and given you freedom in a land flowing with milk and honey, a land to be your possession in which you shall be my people and I shall be your God. This land is for you all. For you are all my possession and therefore you are all equal in my love. My command is that you love one another as I love you. Therefore you shall create the conditions where all my people prosper in a land of plenty. You must therefore ensure that there shall be no poor among you. For this I will bless you in the land that I am giving you for an inheritance to possess. The litmus test that will show your love of me is your love of each other. So I say to you again: there shall be no poor among you.

 

You shall love your neighbour as yourself …

Last Sunday we considered the two commandments that Jesus regarded as the greatest of all the commandments God gave to his people. The second of these two commandments, You shall love your neighbour as yourself, requires some further consideration.

The obligation to “love your neighbour” was first understood to apply to those who were God’s people, not to peoples of other tribes and nations. There are over 600 rules and regulations laid down in the pages of the Jewish Scriptures. They are detailed and seek to cover a multitude of circumstances. But, as we know, they can be summarised in two commandments: love God and love your neighbour. However, we need at least some acquaintance with the breadth and depth of the Law’s demands. Here are a few of the obligations a member of God’s people owed to every other member of that chosen community:

1. Starting with the Ten Commandments:

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour. You shall not covet your neighbour's house; you shall not covet your neighbour's wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbour's. Exodus 20:16=1-7

2. Some commandments leading up to the commandment to love your neighbour:

You shall not steal.
You shall not lie to one another.
You shall not oppress your neighbour or rob him.
You shall not hate your brother in your heart.
You shall not take vengeance.
Do not bear a grudge against of your own people.
You shall love your neighbour as yourself -
I am the LORD. Leviticus 19:11-18
3. Even taking care of a neighbour’s stray animals:

You shall not see your brother's ox or his sheep going astray and ignore them. You shall take them back to your brother. And if he does not live near you and you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home to your house, and it shall stay with you until your brother seeks it. Then you shall restore it to him. Deuteronomy 22:1-2

4. Watching your tongue:

Whoever slanders his neighbour secretly
I will destroy. Psalm 101:5

5. Contrasting attitudes:

The poor is disliked even by his neighbour,
but the rich has many friends.
Whoever despises his neighbour is a sinner,
but blessed is he who is generous to the poor.
Proverbs 14:20-21

6. A prophet’s take on the future:

In that day, declares the LORD of hosts, every one of you will invite his neighbour to come under his vine and under his fig tree. Zechariah 3:10

There are endless laws and explanation of laws that were intended to ensure that that “there shall be no poor among you”. The purpose of these laws was to prevent economic and social conditions that cause poverty. Society was to be constructed in such a way that when poverty occurred remedies were to hand to relieve the poor and restore them to prosperity. What the Bible condemns is what we understand by structural sin. To be sure, individual sins of greed and selfishness can lead to impoverishing a neighbour (read the story of Naboth’s vineyard in 1 Kings 21:1-29). But what the Torah and the prophets condemn is the creation of a society that is structured to enrich a tiny segment at the expense of many who are driven into poverty. It is the unjust systematic creation of poverty in order to maintain a wealthy minority that is roundly condemned. There is no more telling condemnation of the rich than the words of Amos who has this to say about the wealthy wives who were part of a system that battened on the poor. These are the “cows of Bashan” who encouraged their husbands to defraud the poor in order to satisfy their whims:

Hear this word, you cows of Bashan,
who are on the mountain of Samaria,
who oppress the poor, who crush the needy,
who say to your husbands,
“Bring, and let’s party!”
Amos 4:1

But I say to you …

While there are prophetical voices in the Old Testament that insist that the people of Israel are to be a light to the world and who are appointed to bring all peoples to experience God’s presence, these were not, for the most part, heard. One of the startling things about Jesus of Nazareth was that he spoke to and for all humanity. Jesus did not do boundaries, and did not privilege one people over all others. In St Luke’s Gospel he spells out the very essence of his God-given mission to the world:
The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.
Luke 19:10

To be of a worry to God, all that is required is to be lost. The ninety-nine who are safe are not of immediate concern. God goes after the one who is lost until he finds and saves (Luke 15:4).

In St John’s Gospel Jesus reminds an amazing Samaritan woman that “salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). But salvation is not for Jews alone and the Samaritan people who came out of their city and believed in Jesus understood that “this man is in truth the Saviour of the world” (John 4:42). According to St Matthew the Risen Lord commissioned even doubting disciples to go to the whole world:

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
Matthew 28:18-20
St Paul grasped that “the reconciliation of the world” (Romans 11:15) is God’s clear intention and that that purpose is made visible in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus:

For in Christ Jesus you are all sons and daughters of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise.
Galatians 3:24-29

A very profound statement of Paul causes him to break into a song of wonderment. He concludes a long and tortuous argument - it covers chapters 9, 10, and 11 of Romans - to show that God’s mercy is given to both Jew and Gentile,

For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all. Romans 11:32

We are, Paul concludes, all sinners. Therefore, he proclaims, we are all saved.

Paul is so astonished that he has come to this conclusion that his heart takes over from his head and he sings,

Oh, the depth of the riches
and wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable are his judgments
and how unfathomable his ways!
For who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been his counsellor?
Or who has first given to him
so that he might be repaid?
For from him
and through him
and to him
are all things.
To him be glory forever.
Amen
Romans 11:33-36

Everything belongs to God. Everything exists through God’s ever-present care. Everything returns to God. Everything.

You tear the skin from off my people …

But to back-track. We have briefly explored the legislation that was meant to create a paradise: There shall be no poor among you! It never happened. After the people of Israel settled in the land flowing with milk and honey, exploitation of the vulnerable began to eat away at the ideals spelled out in the desert by Moses and his successors. A wealthy class emerged and by the eight century B.C. prophets such as Isaiah, Amos, and Micah were protesting at an aristocracy whose exploitation robbed the small farmer of the land given them by God, and engaged in every kind of corruption that is familiar to us to this very day. What happened was that sin was built into society. The wealthy exploited the poor routinely as a matter of everyday business.

Listen to Amos, a prophet of the eight century B.C. who lived shortly before Isaiah:

Hear this, you who trample on the needy
and bring the poor of the land to an end,
saying,
“When will the new moon be over,
that we may sell grain?
And the Sabbath,
that we may offer wheat for sale,
that we may make the ephah small and the shekel great
and deal deceitfully with false balances,
that we may buy the poor for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals
and sell the chaff of the wheat?
Amos 8:4-6

Listen to Isaiah, a Jerusalem prophet, who was therefore at the heart of things:

The LORD has taken his place to contend;
he stands to judge peoples.
The LORD will enter into judgment
with the elders and princes of his people:
“It is you who have devoured the vineyard,
the spoil of the poor is in your houses.
What do you mean by crushing my people,
by grinding the face of the poor?”
declares the LORD God of hosts.
Isaiah. 3:13-15

Woe to those who join house to house,
who add field to field,
until there is no more room,
and you are made to dwell alone
in the midst of the land.
Isaiah 5:8

Listen to Micah who came to live in Jerusalem in the last ten years of the eight century B.C.:

Woe to those who devise wickedness
and work evil on their beds!
When the morning dawns, they perform it,
because it is in the power of their hand.
They covet fields and seize them,
and houses, and take them away;
they oppress a man and his house,
a man and his inheritance.
Micah 2:1-2

Do not think that God was not listening to the pain of the people or that God remained blissfully unaware of the evil society that had come to dominate that land flowing with milk and honey. The rulers and chiefs of the people, who should be shepherds of the flock, are the very ones who create a world of poverty:
Listen, you rulers of Jacob,
you chiefs of the house of Israel!
You ought to know what is right.
But you hate good and love evil.
You tear the skin from off my people
and their flesh from off their bones,
you eat the flesh of my people,
and flay their skin from off them,
and break their bones in pieces
and chop them up like meat in a pot,
like flesh in a cauldron.
Micah 3:1-3

If we jump forward about three hundred or possibly four hundred years, nothing much has changed. Listen to Malachi:

Then [says the LORD] I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts. Malachi 3:5

You always have the poor with you

Jesus is not side-tracking the poor. He well knows that, given the emptiness of many human hearts, the poor will always be with us. But the woman is anointing him for burial, that is, in preparation for the death that he will die to uphold the place and purpose of God in our world. Jesus is the anointed one. He is, as the ironical mocking of the chief priests and the scribes declare him to be:
He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross that we may see and believe. Mark 15:31-32

What Jesus, the King of Israel, does for the poor is what the writer of Psalm 72 prophetically longs for:

Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to the royal son!
May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice!
Let the mountains bear prosperity for the people,
and the hills, in righteousness!
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the children of the needy,
and crush the oppressor.
Psalm 72:1-4

The programme outlined for Jesus Messiah in the hopes of the psalm composer, is not only the programme outlined by God for his Son. It is the programme that Son outlines for all who would follow him on the way to creating the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven:

For he delivers the needy when he calls,
the poor and him who has no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the poor.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life,
and precious is their blood in his sight.
Psalm 72:12-15
A reading from the first book of the Kings 17:10-16

Then the word of the LORD came to him [Elijah], “Arise, go to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and dwell there. Behold, I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” So he arose and went to Zarephath. And when he came to the gate of the city, behold, a widow was there gathering sticks. And he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, that I may drink.” And as she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” And she said, “As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. And now I am gathering a couple of sticks that I may go in and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it and die.” And Elijah said to her, “Do not fear; go and do as you have said. But first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterward make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, “The jar of flour shall not be spent, and the jug of oil shall not be empty, until the day that the LORD sends rain upon the earth. ” And she went and did as Elijah said. And she and he and her household ate for many days. The jar of flour was not spent, neither did the jug of oil become empty, according to the word of the LORD that he spoke by Elijah.
The word of the LORD.

The prophet Elijah confronted kings, withstood Jezebel, and defeated the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel. Yet he had to learn that to be about God’s business does not mean an exclusive engagement with the rich and powerful. There may be thunder, and fire, and wind. But there is also the still small voice (1 Kings 19:11-12). So God sends him out of Israel to Sidon (in modern Lebanon) to a widow woman who is gathering sticks to make a fire. She wants to bake a last bit of bread for herself and her son. What Elijah has to do is to do what God would do: look after this foreigner, this poor widow and provide for her and her son in their need. Elijah has to learn that ‘love your neighbour’ applies to strangers. If a prophet is one who speaks on behalf of God, it is only proper that he acts as God would act. In the next story in the Book of Kings (17:17-24) Elijah calls back to life the widow’s son. In her grateful astonishment the woman declares,

Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the LORD in truly in your mouth. 1 Kings 17:24

The God of Elijah has to deal with kings and potentates but especially that same God has to deal with the poor. And those who serve the LORD must likewise serve the poor.

 

Responsorial Psalm Psalm 145:7-10. R/. v.2

R/. My soul give praise to the LORD

It is the LORD who keeps faith forever;
who executes justice for the oppressed,
who gives food to the hungry.
The LORD sets the prisoners free. R/.

The LORD gives sight to the blind
who lifts up those who are bowed down;
the LORD loves the righteous.
The LORD watches over the stranger. R/.

The LORD upholds the widow and the orphan,
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
The LORD will reign forever,
your God, O Zion, to all generations.

R/. My soul give praise to the LORD.

 

Psalms 146 to 150 form a conclusion of praise to the whole Book of Psalms. Psalm 146 (145) begins with a determination to “praise the LORD all my life” and each of these last psalms is a song of praise. The concluding psalm, Psalm 150, begins with “Praise God in his sanctuary” (the Temple) and every line following begins with “Praise him” and the last line of all the 150 psalms is,

Let all, everything that breathes, praise the LORD!

Not that God needs our praise. But when we pray the reasons why we should praise the LORD we are reminding ourselves of all that the LORD does for us. Psalm 146 sings its reasons why the descendants of Jacob, the people of Israel, should praise the LORD. It is an impressive list:

The LORD is the maker of heaven and earth.
The LORD makes the seas and all that is in them.
The LORD secures justice for those who are wronged.
The LORD gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets prisoners free.
The LORD restores sight to the blind.
The LORD makes those who are bent stand straight.
The LORD loves the righteous.
The LORD watches over the stranger
The LORD gives courage to the orphan
and to the widow woman.
The LORD will reign forever, for all generations.

That is just the first psalm of the final doxology of praise. There are four more psalms of praise to be sung before we reach the final Alleluia.

A reading from the letter to the Hebrews 9:24-28

For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages, to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.
The word of the LORD.

The Temple, the House of God in Jerusalem was an earthly home of God, an imitation of the heavenly dwelling of the LORD. The activities of the priests in the worship of God in the Temple were modelled on what the angels were thought to do before the heavenly throne. But the Temple was a man-made replica, and service done there were mere “copies of the things” done in heaven. Not so in the heavenly ministry of the exalted Jesus. His death, the sacrifice of himself, has achieved what no other sacrifice could. His death has an eternal significance that reaches from the “now” of this world to the “forever” of the life to come. This is what our Mass, our Eucharist proclaims. Just as Elijah’s word was confirmed by his action, so the word of the LORD is confirmed in the breaking of the bread.

 

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Mark 12:38-44

In his teaching [Jesus] said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretence make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Amen I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.
The Gospel of the LORD.

Are there any in our Christian churches who walk around in long robes, who like greetings in the market-place, who have the best seats in church and the places of honour at banquets? Is there any who put the reputation of the institution above the care of the little ones Jesus embraced in his arms? And if there are such people ought they to receive condemnation?

What Jesus condemns in the behaviour of the scribes must be condemned at all times and in all places. For he who exalts himself must be humbled. There is a line in the letter of St James that speaks to our times:

Humble yourselves before the LORD, and he will exalt you.
James 4:10

The poor widow puts in her penny and before God and the world that is a far greater prayer than that offered by those whose ostentatious offerings are merely an extension of their long prayers.

Joseph O’Hanlon

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