The word of God shakes us out of the slumber of fears and illusions so that, liberated from a Pharisee in us, we can experience the joy of being loved unconditionally. Then, we can have the courage to present ourselves as we are. There’s no higher form of generosity than when we become strong enough to stand before others, unarmoured, in the light of truth. Let’s see what this means.
Bible readings 1 Kings 17: 10–16 Psalm 146: 7–10 Hebrews 9: 24–28 Mark 12: 38–44
So, let’s dare!
The first part of the gospel text for this Sunday we have Jesus denounce the behaviour of Pharisees. In the second part he praises a widow in the temple who offers generously the little she has for her survival. What a combination! I wonder the inspiration of such arrangement. That’s why, to bypass the embarrassment of commenting the apparently unrelated parts, I wanted to take only the short version of the reading, thus, leaving out the part about Pharisees. In that way, it would be a lot easier handling related stories about widows, in the First Reading and in the Gospel. However, after a little reflection I realise that these distant parts may actually have a big story to tell.
A plea in favour of Pharisees
I never cease reminding myself of the biased image anyone reading the Gospels is likely to have against Pharisees. By their confrontations with Jesus, and the strong words he pronounces about them, one is tempted to despise them as though there’s completely nothing praise worthy about them. But, Pharisees, who are they? They are victims! Let’s see how!
See how religious I’m!
Pharisees attach great importance to the observance of the Law. They follow it adamantly, and the catchphrase is: keep the law and the law will keep you. However, their effort to conform to the law does not turn them into super beings; they remain with strengths and weaknesses that you can find in any human being. So, conformity to the law does not necessarily mean purity of heart. Unfortunately, our friends, the Pharisees, don’t seem to acknowledge the truth of their vulnerability. They seek to keep up the image of strong, holy religious men. Worse enough, they become judgmental and intolerant with those who are still struggling to live according to the demands of the law, known as public sinners.
Jesus denounces the Pharisees not because they are worst sinners, but because they refuse to embrace and to own their vulnerability. There, we realise that a Pharisee whom we want to watch from a distance is a child actually present in us. If we want to move forward, hide not, but let’s face this child of ours. It’s not easy to do; we are also victims like Pharisees.
Certainly, we have heard these words before: men don’t cry. A real man is strong and stoic, always composed whatever the season. I can hear you retort; but that’s a thing of the past, psychology has helped us to go beyond such cultural cage. Today we are free to express what we feel within us with little inhibition. I say, congratulations! Yet, the pressure to show oneself as strong still lingers.
Look how strong I’m!
It’s not reasonable to make sweeping statements about what people do, yet, while admitting room for error, we can nevertheless say something about human behaviour. For example, the type of house I want to build and live in, the car I want to drive, or the clothes I want to wear; at times, these serve only to shovel under carpet my vulnerability and shout out there: see how strong I’m! In fact, I may not be that strong, just like a Pharisee may not be as holy as the external image he portrays of himself. Aren’t we left with mouths wide open when stars, strong persons in our eyes, summon the courage to confess their fragility?
In one way or another we want to prove ourselves strong and assure everyone out there that we are fine. Here there’s no room for speculation, each one knows the kind of Pharisee whispering to the ear: you are fine. Settling oneself in such lie is what Jesus denounces.
But soft with sinners
We can wonder why Jesus is so hard with religious people of his time but soft with those known by everyone as sinners or fragile. Certainly, he does not endorse sin, rather, he only approves the capacity of these sinners to acknowledge their fragility, which opens them to welcoming the unconditional love -which is the Gospel. We think of Zacchaeus, Matthew the tax collector, a woman known as town prostitute -their encounter with Jesus doesn’t leave you indifferent. It’s the case with the prodigal son who, stripped of everything, finally gathers the courage to go and present himself, in poverty, before the father. In all these cases, the sinner is met not with judgment but unconditional love.
Indeed, the truth will set you free
Then I begin to understand better, the truth will set you free. My liberation begins when I take the risk, inspired by trust, to present myself before God and before others, just as I’m. What we see in the Pharisees, the behaviour which is not far from ours, is the contrast of the widow of Sarepta, first reading, and of the poor widow in the gospel. Both are fragile and vulnerable, but they remain in the light of truth. The widow of Sarepta is not shy to confess to Elie that she hasn’t much left to live on. She suffers no pression to present herself as self-sufficient, she acknowledges the possible starvation that lingers around her. Similarly, in the Gospel, while many others are making a display of what they have, here comes this poor widow, carrying in broad daylight what represents her miserable life. Both widows go further to show generosity with the little they are left with. Yet, sharing what we have will have meaning only if only we share with generosity and sincerity who we are. In this simplicity of the widows, presenting themselves as they are -there’s a lesson for us.
Give me Lord the freedom of standing in the light of truth!
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