BEING FULLY ONESELF; GIVING TRULY ONE’S SELF
Catholic Homily/Sunday Reflection
32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
November 8, 2009
Readings: 1 Kgs 17:10-16 / Heb 9:24-28 / Mk 12:38-44
Widows and orphans, traditionally, represent the poorest, the neediest, the most forgotten, and the least noticed in society. Widows don’t make people’s heads turn. They merit no “respect” (literally in Latin, respect means “a second look”) from people of the world. They never attract the attention of people of means.
Today, however, we see two widows taking center stage. The first won the attention of a prophet in need. Elijah, on seeing her gathering sticks, asked her a favor: “Bring me a cupful of water to drink.” Emboldened by her enthusiastic response, Elijah asked further: “Please bring along a bit of bread.” With all her remaining strength, she dished out nourishment for Elijah, and tossed out her earthly security.
The second widow won the attention of no less than Jesus himself. Teaching about being fully and truly oneself, Jesus makes use of an apparently negligible act of that widow, to illustrate live what he spoke of with love. “Amen, Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury.” For this widow dropped in more than just her last two coins. She put in all she had … and more … She tossed in two coins, and tossed out herself selflessly and entirely in the process.
The bit players and supporting cast in this drama of reversals – the scribes, who “like to go around in long robes and accept greetings in the marketplaces” – wind up being up-ended by the totally unexpected, as if to prove the Lord’s words: “the first will be last; and the last will be first.” This, for one simple and basic reason …
No, I am not referring to giving per se. Today’s good news cannot be reduced to a “mission fund drive” in which givers vie with each other and compete for who ends up giving more, proportionately or otherwise. I am referring to being, not having. I am referring to quality, not quantity. And I am referring to what the Gospel of Mark today paints so clearly with a dose of evangelical irony. I refer to the candor and simplicity of a poor woman who feels no need to behave differently from what she really is.
We all love to be noticed. We all desire to be looked up to and extolled due to some real – or mostly imaginary – greatness! We have a deep need for entitlement. And we claim it from others, by hook or by crook. We feel crossed when we don’t get what we expect. We make tantrums. We make people pay for what they don’t give us in a variety of ways, not excluding the so-called “cold shoulder” treatment, ignoring others, or simply not talking to them for some lengths of time.
Today, I would like this reflection to go beyond the theme of the widow’s mite. I would like us to reflect more on the many ways we behave like those scribes, endlessly focused on cutting a good figure before the world and other people. I would like us to realize how the scribe in each and every one of us prevents us from becoming the giving persons we all are meant to be.
In our individualistic, materialistic, and consumeristic world culture, narcissism – that overweening love for self that poses as the single biggest block to what Rolheiser calls the “holy longing” – the innately spiritual bent in each and every person born in this world – stands behind many people’s inability to truly love, and to give of themselves fully. In many people’s disordered love for self, they are unable and unwilling to dish out help to others, for they believe that by doing so, they toss out themselves in the process.
We know this in classical Christian spirituality as the sin of selfishness. Overly focused on themselves, narcissists cannot love anybody but themselves. Concerned only with their image, their needs, and their own gain, they are unable to give anything beyond what they have no need for. Along with what Rolheiser also calls “unbridled restlessness,” and “pragmatism,” “narcissism” prevents otherwise good people from being the holy persons they are called to be.
Narcissists, like the scribes, are paralyzed in their self-aggrandizing vision of who they are. They care not much for anyone else, outside of themselves.
The SIN of selfishness, however, like every other sin, has a big “I” in the middle. That is the bad news. “All men have fallen short of the glory of God.” The Gospel passage of today, however, offers us great news. But this great news strikes home and hits hard. It puts us all face to face with our real selves, and with the very real tendency of this “I” – the Ego, if you will – to act and behave exactly like the scribes whom the Lord spoke against thus: “Beware of the scribes …”
Yes, we do have to be wary of ourselves, our unredeemed selves. We have to “get real.” We have to claim fully who we are before we can give anything that we have or own. Selfish people who have no adequate self-possession have not much else to give to others. For selfish people are always needy. They are always in want. And there is precious little that can satisfy the one who thinks the world owes him everything.
The Markan passage of today does not put together two apparently unconnected parts for nothing. The widow and her generous gift could not have taken place if she, like the Scribes, was too full of herself to be able to care at all for anyone else. She was generous and self-giving. But that self-giving ability really boils down to the reality of a person who was inwardly rich, albeit outwardly poor. Having nothing, she possessed all. She didn’t have anything that mattered much, but she definitely had much that ultimately mattered.
What ultimately mattered was herself. She was a self-possessed person … self-possessed enough to give even the last morsel she needed to live on. Fully herself, she was able to give truly of her self.
“Give us freedom of spirit, O Lord, … to do your work on earth” (Opening Prayer).