Sunday, November 11, 2012

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

1 Kings 17:10-16 / Hebrews 9:24-28 / Mark 12:38-44

We all know the tale of Jack and the Beanstock. Young Jack and his mother are desperately poor, with nothing to their name but a cow. Driven by need, Jack’s mother asks him to sell the cow — it would leave them with nothing else, and no hope in the future, but it’s the best she can do to let them live on for just a little longer. Jack, however, heeds the words of a stranger, and rather than getting a few coins for the cow, exchanges her for a few supposedly magic beans. His mother, not to our surprise, is not remotely happy by the exchange!

Now, we know that in the story, Jack’s deal turns out to be a good one — one which, in the end, enriches him and his mother beyond their wildest dreams with the treasure of a giant who lives beyond the clouds. Even so, we sympathize with Jack’s mother and see her frustration. To give up the last hope for a meal, for a few more days of living, on the unbelievable promises of a stranger is surely beyond foolish. What would we say, after all, about a mother who is generous with her paycheck to her needy coworkers and the homeless people she meets outside the office, only to leave her own children hungry, without heat, water, light or home? How would we judge a son who took a chance to help out his friend’s business dreams, a risky and highly unreliable investment, and gave him his parents’ entire life savings, all they could ever expect to live on the rest of their years?

However, it is just this sort of recklessness which the Scriptures seem to counsel today. They seem to say that with the widow of Zarephath and the widow in the Temple, we need to give and give even to the last bit we can call our own, even to our own detriment and of those who depend on us. What is more, what we think is reasonable — to make sure our basic needs are covered and then, only then, from what remains as surplus, to be generous to others — this perfectly reasonable-sounding policy seems precisely the attitude to fall under our Lord’s critique. Those who are generous out of their surplus Jesus at least appears to associate with those whose very way of life eats up the houses of widows while they congratulate themselves for their piety and generosity!

Our mistake in hearing the Scriptures this way is in thinking of ourselves in the place of the widow, that is as though we were living in scarcity, with only limited means that must be carefully rationed and portioned out. It is certainly easy to see why we think that about ourselves, even without looking at prospects for employment and money-raising in these present days. However, as Christians, we are not victims of scarcity but rather are unimaginably rich! Ours is a share in the inexhausable riches of Christ, our High Priest who has entered on our behalf into the heavenly Temple not made by human hands. There, by his one sacrifice of himself once offered on the Cross and brought to the Holy of Holies in his Ascension, we have no merely finite store of glory. Christ our High Priest has once and for all bestowed on his people, and continues to bestow, an unlimited bounty of mercy, of forgiveness, as a promissory note of the riches he will liberally spread about in his glorious return.

Without prejudice to the real, reasonable, even virtuous and holy limits we place materially on our generosity — there are only so many hours in a day, so many pennies in our checking account, after all — without in any we rejecting those important decisions, we who are one in Christ the High Priest can afford to be lavish in our generosity to others. Like the widow of Zarephath before the prophet Elijah — the pagan co-religionist of the wicked queen Jezebel before the exiled spokesman of the true God — we can afford to act out of trust in a bounty for which we have little evidence now but are no less certain will make good our most exuberant acts of kindness.

After all, we have a share in that promised bounty even now. We share in the bounty of our High Priest when we are objects of gossip and choose to bear with it patiently. We share in his bounty when we know embarrassing truths about those who have wronged us and yet remain silent out of respect for the good name which is theirs by right. We enjoy the bounty of our High Priest when we find ourselves tempted by images on our computer or the very palpable presence of that someone (even a stranger met but minutes before) who drives us wild, and yet we lavishly afford to forgo our own pleasure-seeking, freeing the other, anonymous or well known, from becoming the source to satisfy our lusts. Moreover, truth be told, most of us can even share in Christ’s bounty through being far more generous in dollars and cents, happily giving to charity that money so quickly spent on coffee, pizza or the latest app for our iPhone that will so quickly be forgotten.

Brothers and sisters, Christian generosity is not a stab in the dark hoping for a possible return in the distant future. It is not wishful thinking in the face of real scarcity in the present. It is no fool’s exchange of the cow of our real need for a handful of beans. Beyond the clouds, we who are made alive in the blood of Christ will find more than a hungry giant, a bag of gold, and the goose that lays the golden eggs. We have in that true heaven above the clouds nothing less than Jesus Christ who keeps faith forever, secures justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry and sets the captives free. The Lord loves us in our need and has richly blessed us in his mercy, so we need never fear. In the life of Christian charity, the jar of our generosity will never go empty and the jug of the oil of forgiveness in Christ Jesus will never run dry.

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