Wednesday, November 4, 2015

A Life of Integrity

Thirty Second Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

I grew up being taught to be gracious when receiving things from others. I was told that I had no right to express my true feelings about the gift even when it was the silliest of presents. I still hear this ringing in my ear, “when people give you things that you don’t want, you must remember that it’s the thought that counts.” In life, you just learn to bite your tongue and hide your discontent behind the fake grin of approval. I bought into the lie that it is the kindness behind the act that matters most. External behaviour, our actions and the way we dress don’t really matter. But the truth of the matter is that these things do matter. Good intentions are never enough. It should be matched with good actions. Likewise, good actions would merely be pretentious, if one’s real reason was less than altruistic.  

It’s never a choice between intention and deeds, it’s about both. That is why today’s gospel is divided into two sections. Each section invites a different kind of response and focus depending on where you are sitting in Church. For the priest who sits up here in the sanctuary, the gospel is a personal favourite as he is empowered to extol the virtues of the generous widow, and use her as a model for giving. It’s not always you get to hear a Catholic priest speak about the virtues of giving. This is one of those rare occasions. On the other hand, those who sit in the nave, in the pews, would also find delight in the first part of the passage, where the description of the scribes, those who like to walk about in long robes, enjoy being greeted obsequiously in public, take places of honour in the front, and who make a show of lengthy prayer (or some might add lengthy homilies), because the description sounds pretty much like the folks sitting up here. And I don’t mean the servers!

The two seemingly unrelated sections often poses a conundrum of sorts to preachers and readers. It is somewhat of an odd place to find such a story, and so we need to ask why such a juxtaposition is made. Most people would choose either to focus on the part where Jesus levels blistering attacks against the ostentatious pretentiousness of religious leaders or expound the virtues of sacrificial giving displayed by the widow. But to separate the two would be to ignore scriptures and the lectionary’s choice in matching these two sections in a single periscope. Therefore, the condemnation of the false leaders and the pronouncement of judgment and the observation regarding a widow dropping two copper pennies into an offering receptacle in the temple are not just related by coincidence but has been deliberately placed together because each forms a part of the larger puzzle. The key to this paradox comes from the context.

Let’s look at the first section, where Jesus berates the hypocritical and self-serving religious leaders. It would be a mistake to assume that every scribe and religious leader was corrupt. We must never forget the fact that the scribes were men who had dedicated their lives to copying and studying and understanding and teaching and applying God’s word.  Further, the scribes were forbidden to take a salary for their work so many of them chose this life knowing that it could mean living in poverty. Also it must be said that there wasn’t anything intrinsically wrong or inappropriate about the scribes wearing special cloths, a symbol of their religious vocation, or being honoured guests in the synagogues and at feasts, where they were often invited to preside and lead in prayers.  Therefore, it’s important to realise that Jesus was not rebuking these practices as evil in themselves.  Rather, he was strongly condemning the wicked hearts of the scribes that turned these otherwise appropriate practices into acts of pride and selfishness and injustice. Instead of serving God, their ministry had become self-serving and quite narcissistic. And in serving their own interests, they had no qualms selfishly taking advantage of the weak..

On the other hand, Jesus provided his audience with a brilliant contrast to the self-serving, glory-seeking scribes.  He did so by drawing their attention to the poor old widow. She reaches into her sack and pulls out a measly two mites, barely enough money to cause a change in the balance sheet of the treasury. She deposits it nonetheless and goes her way. The point and placement of this passage couldn't be any clearer.  The scribes in Jesus' rebuke had gained much through sin.  And they used their gain to sin much.  They drew attention to their works, passing them off as good and holy actions, when they were really sinful acts flowing from pretentious hearts.  In contrast, immediately following a series of rebukes directed at these scribes, Jesus pointed out a woman who did not draw attention to herself even though she was truly acting in a holy and pious way.  The scribes whose hearts were wicked, wickedly acted in loud fashion.  The widow whose heart had been given wholly to God, acted humbly and generously and without knowing that anyone had noticed her contribution.  

The contrast between the hearts of the scribes and the heart of the widow cannot be missed.  The sin of the scribes was their dishonesty and the virtue of the widow was not just her generosity but her integrity. She gave not only whatever she possessed, but she gave her all. Her external giving flowed from her internal surrendering to the providence of God. The scribes on the other hand made a show of their giving, their religious practices was merely a show, a façade and a veneer which concealed an internal rot that was brought on by selfishness, greed and pride. They who had promised to live a life of poverty, in trust of God’s Providence, ended seeking security in terms of position, admirers and possessions. In the venerable words of Mahatma Gandhi, every person, every Christian must strive for the following ideal, “Your beliefs become your thoughts, Your thoughts become your words, Your words become your actions, Your actions become your habits, Your habits become your values, Your values become your destiny.”

The point is, the Christian life is meant to be one of much and many contrasts. The Christian life must have great contrast between light and darkness, sin and righteousness, life and death, true satisfaction and temporary pleasure, freedom and guilt, persecution and acceptance, walking by faith and walking by sight, looking first to this life and looking first to the next, hope and despair. In a culture and world that has pawned its integrity, Christians must be shining beacons of integrity. When we lose integrity, when our actions no longer match our values or vice versa, then the lines that divide us from the world and all that it stands for ultimately becomes blurred. We will no longer be effective witnesses of the values of the gospel, if our righteousness is no more than the average Joe, if our hypocrisy, our greed, our selfishness merely reflects that of the world. There is a real, deadly danger when we, as Christians, stop noticing contrast.  If sin stops seeming quite so sinful or our hope stops being otherworldly or if our desires stop looking much different than those of the non-Christians around us, we ought to be nervous. When we lack consistency between our thoughts, words and actions, then our pious actions and prayers will be reduced to mere ostentatious behaviour meant to impress others but empty of content and devoid of its original prophetic edge. We may seem to be giving much to God, but in truth, we give nothing of ourselves without expecting the returns and benefits to be more lucrative.

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