A Meditation from Frances on next Sunday’s Readings (32nd):-
Just recently I noted with relief the evacuation of the remaining White Helmets and their families from Syria by, of all unlikely people, the Israeli forces! The White Helmets are the men who risk their lives to rescue the victims of Assad’s bombings. What remains however in my mind are the photos of those young men who have been killed in the course of this work. I recall pictures of slight young men with embarrassed, self-deprecating smiles, people who never sought fame but simply found themselves in the right spot at the right time, and whose decision to stay and give their lives for others was quite simply motivated by character; what they were and the conviction and integrity which required them to stay and help their fellow human beings, come what may. Our Readings this week are all about such moments of decision, times when to be true to oneself, people could do no other than follow their conviction even to death.
Such was the woman in our Gospel passage, (Mark 12:38-44) the woman noticed by Jesus at the Temple, and whose story follows very closely on last week’s Reading. Jesus,, as we saw was in the holy city for Passover and the last week of his life. It was a time of final confrontation, of burning of one’s boats, and he notices a woman who epitomises his own situation. We have to remember that this was a time when there was no Social Security, no regular help for the very poor, although beggars abounded. My guess is that this lady had quite simply come to the end of the road. Devoid of family, friends,, and any financial help she turns to the only help she can, to God in the Temple, and makes the final offering of her two remaining copper coins. She knows she is going to starve to death and, at this crunch moment, just gives herself to God, to the only one she trusts will be merciful – in death. We notice that Jesus does not intervene to save her, she gets no last minute reprieve and he has already passed unfavourable judgement on the rich and their way of life. They could easily have helped her, but did not. He observes how they also give large donations to the Temple, gifts befitting their rank and status, and which were observed by the public; and he noted that, just like us, they gave from their surplus wealth. In effect, it cost them nothing but gained them a great deal from the respect they got from society.
Our poor widow is an alter-Christus. Finally, in extremis, she has flung all her hope on God, just as Jesus will do a couple of days later, trusting in the Father, in whom everything in him insisted that their relationship was true; and Jesus, true to his instincts, went ahead, trusting he was right. He had belief, but no certainty that God would vindicate him by resurrection. Like the widow, he just followed his conviction of a merciful redeemer. There will be moments in every life when we too have to make that dive into hope. It may be before vital surgery, or the question of a relationship; it may be in the moment of our martyrdom. There is that in human beings which, fired by grace, gives us the ability to make such amazing leaps of faith, life changing moments.
In the Letter to the Hebrews (9:24-28) the author, who spends a lot of time comparing the Jewish temple high priests unfavourably to Jesus, discusses what differentiates them from Jesus. Clearly he was writing principally for Jewish-Christians in Rome who were under pressure to forsake Christ and return to full practice of Judaism. His point here is that the Temple they served was a man-made construction, whose entire purpose lay in the continual repetition of rites of animal sacrifice in a never ending cycle of sin and atonement, which by their very nature could never achieve their aim of making sinful human beings whole in their relationship with God. But the self-offering of Christ on the cross, he points out, was a unique event requiring no sequel of repetition; since Jesus has taken-on the sin of the entire world by the willing sacrifice of his own person. Jesus, unlike the Temple priests who operated in the temple, entered ‘heaven itself’, and, face to face with divinity as beloved Son gives the Father the only satisfactory offering, the one which makes him and through him us, wholly one with God. We have to think of two great leaps of faith here: that of Jesus who believed he was the Father’s ultimate gift to the world, and made that one and all important act of self-sacrifice; and of the recipients of the Letter, those, (like us) who are asked to make that leap of faith into the absurd, casting aside all that they had previously learnt of God through Judaism, and to launch out into the deep, following Jesus the missionary/healer/messiah, whose understanding of the God-human relationship was so radically different.
Our Reading from 1 Kings (17:10-16) helps us on that difficult journey by way of the story of Elijah and the pagan woman of Sidon. We note that the woman was not a Jew, but a pagan, so that the story stretches out to embrace foreigners – a leap into the unknown, someone despised by Jews. Clearly there was a famine, and people were dying, and the prophet himself was desperate; also he was in hiding, hunted by the king who had turned to paganism and was after his blood. My guess is that the woman herself was at the end of her tether, rather like the widow of the Gospel. Her gods had clearly failed her and she and her son were about to eat their last meal and die. Was the appearance of Elijah something of a shot in the dark, a last hope? Somehow he persuaded her to make that ‘leap of faith’, the one which paid off in her case, and did so for Elijah too; and out of this most unlikely of alliances came a great story of hope and trust that the God of Israel will not fail. Indeed, he has not through the long and difficult times in which he offers salvation to his people, to those who make that great leap out into the dark. I pray we too may follow in their footsteps.