Saturday of the 9th Week of Ordinary Time: 2 Timothy 4:1-8, Mark 12:38-44.
Today’s readings follow a theme from our last reflection: giving ourselves fully to the Lord. At least this is what jumps out at me, likely aided by the fact that I’m also reading The Life of St. Catherine of Siena by Blessed Raymond of Capua for our Dominican formation, and the descriptions of how she was “all in” with her devotion to God are simply astounding. Today, we hear more from St. Paul’s final letter to Timothy from the Roman jail as well as Jesus’s comment on the poor widow who gave two small coins to the temple treasury. The message from both is clear: we are called to go “all in” for God.
Let’s start with Jesus’s commentary on the widow and then see how St. Paul relates to this as an evangelist for Christ. Jesus first points out a problem with the scribes who accept “seats of honor in synagogues” and “devour the houses of widows” (presumably taking food and riches from these vulnerable widows and offering “lengthy prayers” in return). Jesus is uncompromising in his judgment here: “They will receive a very severe condemnation.” What is He pointing out with this speech? I think the problem is not just what the scribes do, but the way they are internally ordered. Their actions reveal a deeper problem: they delight in the honors, recognition, and riches of this world. They are consumed by selfishness and pride. But worse is their casual bartering of prayer for worldly concerns. With this, we see that they do not fear God; that is, they do not offer Him the awe, reverence, and devotion He is due. Their prayers are used like a commodity, like money, to get other pleasures they can enjoy in this world. Here is the ultimate example of people who know the law and the scriptures but have ordered themselves internally to seek only their own gratification. We start to understand why Jesus calls the scribes and Pharisees “hypocrites”: they preach unstinting devotion to the Lord but practice unstinting devotion to themselves.
As we understand the scribes’ use of prayer as a commodity, like money, the transition to the passage about the temple treasury is much more natural. We begin to wonder, is prayer commodified here, too? Jesus and his disciples are situated in a place of the temple where they observe people putting their offerings in the treasury box. At first glance, at least worldly offerings are used for spiritual things (the temple and furthering the work/glory of God) rather than prayers being offered in order to receive worldly commodities. But Jesus takes us deeper and says that this seemingly virtuous act is not the point. I love His message here because He is so radically centered on God that God is always the measure as well as the destination. He measures the worth of a person’s contribution not on the value of the money they donate but on the faith they have as they make the donation. He says of the widow, “she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.” His point is not that one should bankrupt oneself when donating to the Church (although this may be part of His point), but that the widow’s faith in the saving grace of God is greater than her faith in the value of money and worldly security. Money, in fact, is blown up as any kind of measure of value. The only value in this world is the slippery currency of faith that we must always cultivate within ourselves, and its inestimable value exists only because the object of faith, God, bestows it thanks to His awesome nature. Value has nothing to do with us or the things we create (like money), and everything to do with God.
This widow is “all in,” to use a poker metaphor. The fantastic thing about being “all in” for God is that we aren’t trusting luck or gaming skill to “win,” but trusting in the One who loves his children. We are trusting the divine promise — not much of a gamble, it’s a guarantee! Also, the payout is not riches on earth but everlasting life with God. This last point must shift our entire perspective on the “game” we’re playing in life: the stakes are more profound, the One who bestows the eternal payout is waiting with welcoming arms but wants us to use this life to grow in perfection of spirit and action in order to be united with Him. He has given us a Way, His Son, to show us how to find Him.
Before turning to St. Paul in the first reading, I’d like to reflect on just how far this perspective is from the one we encounter every day. Let’s look beyond the joke that is popular culture with its uber-rich rappers, athletes, and socialites (not to mention my mother’s pet peeve, American Idol, which transparently disobeys the first commandment). Let’s consider contemporary events where we have a chance to put our faith into action. From the senseless and shameful killing of black men by the police to the sexual and economic exploitation of women, what does the discourse of the morally correct sound like? Let me point out the parallel here to those donating money at the temple treasury — we’re all doing “the right thing,” but there is a qualitative difference for Christ in how people do it. And the difference is not earnestness. The difference is God-driven; it is faith and constant focus on our Creator, the Alpha and Omega. Back to our contemporary events. The discourse I hear is driven from many perspectives: racial, economic, political, pragmatic, idealistic. But I rarely hear one that is Christocentric. People, if we are Catholics, our primary objection to these injustices must be that they abuse God, God’s creation, God’s gift of love to humanity, our promise to uphold our end of God’s Covenant. Where is God in this discourse? There have always been horrors on the earth and likely always will be. Why, when Canaanite children were sacrificed to Moloch, humans could decry this as an affront to God, and today, when we encounter atrocities we find only socially-defined objections to shout (race, economy, politics, ideals). Are we embarrassed to bring up God because people will scoff? Even when we do hear people object from a “religious viewpoint” it is shown as one (often marginalized) perspective among many, others of which are assumed to be more convincing. We’ve strayed far from acknowledging that all comes from God. I firmly believe (as does the Church) that any moral sense comes to us directly from God, nowhere else. We don’t create moral right and wrong. Thus, when we align ourselves with reasons to object to injustice and atrocities that omit God (consciously or unconsciously), we are fooling ourselves and not proclaiming Christ in the way we are called to do.
Let’s bring this discussion to St. Paul’s letter to Timothy. In his exhortation for Timothy to keep the faith and fulfill his ministry, Paul writes:
For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine
but, following their own desires and insatiable curiosity,
will accumulate teachers and will stop listening to the truth
and will be diverted to myths.
I believe that this “time” has been with us for a while and we are living solidly within it. Many of my friends and colleagues who are atheists simply “will not tolerate sound doctrine.” They are offended whenever God comes up in conversation. This offense over God in the public sphere has become institutionalized in our society. I’m not arguing that we should become a religious state, simply that Christians should not fool themselves in thinking that we live in a “Christian society” — we live in a fully secularized and atheistic society. Speaking of God, using Him as a basis for orienting our lives and making decisions, is seen as ludicrous, if not dangerous. Catholics should not be complacent or comfortable with the state of culture in the world. We are even farther away from the widow and her two cents than the rich donors or even the hypocritical scribes, for it is not acceptable to even utter the word “God” in polite society.
What to do? Let’s return to our scripture for inspiration and instruction. St. Paul “charges” Timothy to “proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching.” Well, it’s certainly inconvenient in today’s age. And let’s note that we should eschew contemporary shock journalism and debate by convincing and encouraging “through all patience and teaching.” Isn’t it refreshing to hear a measured voice in debates? One that is not worked into a frenzy but instead reveals patience and learning? This takes self-control and a knowledge that one’s way of being (our demeanor should model Christ for others) is as important as any sort of “winning” of an argument. This is why Paul urges: “be self-possessed in all circumstances; put up with hardship; perform the work of an evangelist; fulfill your ministry.” I love these words. We must listen to them. I talk to people in the Church who have an edge of hysteria in their voices, who are sidetracked on issues of Latin Mass vs. vernacular Mass or receiving the eucharist by mouth vs. in your hand. They speak of these things wildly as if the fate of the Church rests on their interpretation. This is very much contrary to what Paul is telling us. First off, let’s focus on the real problems in the world. Secondly, let’s be self-possessed, patient, and encouraging. How we evangelize is as important as what we say.
Finally, I am struck by Paul’s phrase, “fulfill your ministry.” Certainly, we don’t all have the same vocation, calling, or ministry. And we all have the freedom and latitude to accomplish our calling with our own gifts and in our own way. But what strikes me is that we can’t forget that our calling or ministry is already there, given to us by God, waiting for us to fulfill it. We can’t go through life thinking that we can just do the motions (go to Mass on Sundays, say a few kind words to people, give to the Rice Bowl). God has a relationship with each of us, a specific calling, and gave us His Son as a guide, a gate to Him, and an intercessor. Are we yearning for God, searching to fulfill our ministry?
Are we “all in”?