Sunday Reflection with Fr Terry Tastard - 8 November 2009

With today’s Gospel (Mark 12.38-44) there is the option of omitting the first paragraph, and you can see why.  This paragraph makes clergy embarrassed, because it might apply to them, with its description of self-important religious functionaries wearing special robes.  Well, it does apply to them – but it applies to lawyers also, because the scribes mentioned by Jesus also functioned as lawyers and judges.

They adjudicated disputes and applied the law.  In fact, these words of Jesus could even apply to administrators, because the scribes had a great deal of influence in how the community conducted its affairs.  There is a message for us here:  our institutions exist for all of us.  They are there for the common good.  Clergy sometimes need to remember that the church does not exist for them, just as lawyers need to remember the same about the legal system.  The civil service is not there for the sake of the managers, and the NHS is there for the good of the whole population and not just its staff. 

The bigger an organisation, the harder it is to keep an atmosphere of service and goodwill.  We need to remember the washing of the feet that we enact each year when we commemorate the institution of the eucharist at the Last Supper.  Jesus gave us what would become the beauty, dignity, solemnity and power of the Mass, but at the same time he also gave us an example of himself kneeling at the feet of others, a servant to all.
From this warning against self-aggrandizement we pass to the incident where Jesus sees a poor widow putting a coin into the Temple treasury.  First of all, it is an example of generosity.  Second, it is a challenge to our usual perceptions which is to admire the big donor and to take for granted the many more modest contributions.

Jesus wants us to think otherwise.  A modest donation from a less-well off person can represent a large slice of their wealth, so proportionally they are giving more and giving more generously.  This, too, is a challenge to institutions in our own day, where professional fund-raising can verge on the ruthless or the mechanical. 
Jesus does not see as other people sees.  He sees into the heart, and the disposition of the giver, and admires greatly what others would simply fail to notice, namely a generous spirit.  We are struck by the sheer faith of the woman – she gives what little she has, and she gives it all.  This links with the first story from 1 Kings 17, where the widow gives and finds that her generosity is matched by the generosity of God.  Also striking in the gospel is the sense that she too has a stake in the institution.  Her contribution may be small, but she makes it because she belongs.  It is her Temple too, just as it is her religion.  Catholics understand. 

We are a people, we have traditions that unite us to others, we have venerable buildings and beautiful worship that other generations have passed on to us.  These things would have no significance if they did not represent faith in the living God.  The widow knows this.  She gives because she  believes and she belongs to a people who believe.  So do we.

Fr Terry Tastard is Parish Priest of Holy Trinity RC Church, Brook Green, London W6.

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