1 KGS 17:10-16
PS 146:7, 8-9, 9-10
In approaching our gospel for this week, there are a couple important points to highlight. First, the first half of the passage is clearly about hypocrisy. The scribes are portrayed as those who focus on external appearances but who are internally quite wicked. We should, however, refrain from using this as a basis for understanding the scribes as such. Still less ought we to see the scribes as representative of the Jews as a whole. As Adela Yarbro Collins writes,
“Rabbinic literature is full of self-criticism, and self-criticism is the best kind of criticism.”
Accordingly, rather than using this passage as a jumping point for criticizing the hypocrisy of the scribes, we ought instead to turn this passage on ourselves in order to root out our own hypocrisies.
Second, we ought to keep in mind the narrative trajectory in which this Markan passage finds its context. Just a few verses earlier in Mark, we see Jesus (in a much more favorable portrayal of the scribes) laying out the first commandment: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength!” (12:29-30). The first commandment, in short, is to love God with one’s whole life. This is precisely what the widow in the second half of the Markan passage does. She puts in everything she has, her whole livelihood. Collins writes,
The implication is that the scribe knows what the greatest commandment is, but the widow actually fulfills it. By offering her last two coins to God (whose temple and treasury they ultimately are), she has demonstrated that she loves God ‘with her whole life.’
Bearing in mind these two considerations, we might ask then if we are people who know the commandments but fail to fulfill them. I think this opportunity for self-criticism is especially apt in the context of Catholic Social Teaching which is becoming increasingly better-known and appreciated. More and more Catholics can speak somewhat knowledgeably and appreciatively of solidarity or the preferential option for the poor or care for God’s creation. But this passage reminds us that knowledge of the law does not imply fulfillment of the law. In other words, just because we know what solidarity is does not mean at all that we know how to practice it.
When I used to teach, I loved using this as a jumping off point for talking about specifics. I would ask my students after lecturing on solidarity “what does this mean for us specifically? How specifically can we put this principle to work in our lives?” It is a hard question, no less for me with all my training in moral theology.
If we go back to the passage, we have a third important point. Jesus uses the example of the poor widow to illustrate how to put the law into action. In other words, we points to an exemplar rather than getting into an extensive practical debate. From this we might highlight how important examples of holiness are in addition to moral education. We need to constantly see how holy people live if we are to understand the true normative significance of the principles of Catholic morality. We just celebrated All Saints and the lives of the saints are a great place to start. Moral theologians might also facilitate this process with more narratives that provide a sort of “contemporary hagiography” illustrating how real people today are putting moral principles in action. Our pope provides one such example with his self-conscious simplicity and humility. My husband and I really love Ron Sider and his story behind the “graduated tithe” as another exemplar that teaches us how to put Christian social teaching into action. My family has also been deeply inspired by the story of Rich Mullin’s life. Such examples move us beyond thinking that application of a moral principle is analogous to a cookie cutter but nevertheless challenge us to critique our own lives for the ways that they fall short of the moral principles we claim to hold. In the end, we want our own lives to add to a contemporary hagiography and to serve as an illustration of what the moral law looks like when put into action.