Fr. Patrick Fitzgerald-Lombard, O.Carm., is parish priest of the parish of St. Thomas of Canterbury, Mayfield, Sussex. He is a member of the Aylesford Community. Today, Fr. Patrick is reflecting on the readings from yesterday's Mass. Please read Fr Patrick's introduction and please re-look at the readings for Sunday before continuing (these will open in a separate window for ease of reading):
“The Lord keeps faith for ever” proclaims the psalm this Sunday and on that we rely.
Two Sundays ago we heard about the blind beggar Bartimaeus, healed and following Jesus on the way. For Jesus that way led to his Palm Sunday entrance into Jerusalem and then a lengthy period of teaching in the Temple. The Gospel we would have heard last Sunday if we had not been celebrating All Saints together with the Gospel for this Sunday are the two samples we hear about this time. We can now observe the evangelist at work, taking the traditions about Jesus available to him and shaping them into the story he wants to tell. This is the only visit of Jesus to the Temple in this Gospel and it is important because it comes just before the Passion.
Mark makes the arrival of Jesus in the Temple somewhat complicated with a double entrance and an overnight in Bethany. His aim with this introduction is to use a barren fig tree as a symbol of a barren Temple. Jesus then remains in the Temple until he leaves after his observations about the widow which is the Gospel for this Sunday. Just about every translation and commentary makes Jesus departure from the Temple part of the following scene with the next chapter1. Yet the break clearly comes after the departure when Jesus has crossed the valley and begins a discourse sitting on the Mount of Olives More about that next week; for this Sunday the point is that the arrival and departure form a bracket around the whole of Jesus’ time in the Temple. It also means that the departure concludes the widow scene which is this Sunday’s Gospel.
Notable as well is that there is a short version provided for the Gospel which tells only of the widow. We can only wonder why the possibility is given of leaving out the warning about the scribes which precedes Jesus’ observations about her.
The various encounters during Jesus’ time in the Temple highlight the differences between Jesus and the Jewish leadership and provide the background for the passion. With one exception, the evangelist records a series of confrontations between Jesus and various Jewish groups, a trial of strength. He begins with the chief priests and elders, then it is the turn of the Pharisees followed by the Sadducees. Each encounter concludes with Jesus gaining the upper hand. .
The exception comes after these encounters; this is the episode which would have been the Gospel for last Sunday. As I mentioned in my reflection last Sunday, Mark gives us a remarkably free and frank exchange between Jesus and a scribe. We can take it as the quest of an honest seeker. What is remarkable is that Jesus does not reply with a question of his own as he often does. Instead, Jesus himself recites the Shema Israel, “Hear O Israel”, the great prayer of the Jews which even today they recite daily. Given the poor relations between the early Christians and the Jews, it is perhaps not surprising that Jesus praying the Shema was soon edited out. In Matthew’s Gospel, this encounter has become yet another confrontation. Jesus’ reply elicits an enthusiastic response from the scribe which echoes many of Jesus’s values and teachings, even though Jesus’ reply to that indicates the man has some way to go. This encounter in Mark is therefore an important survival showing an unexpected openness by a scribe. The commandments to love God and neighbour are familiar and found elsewhere. Here Jesus praying the prayer and the encouraging response of the scribe to him are unique to this Gospel and are reminders to us of the great need for openness as we seek to live the Gospel.
After that encounter, the tensions are back again as Jesus poses a question to the Jewish authorities about the Son of David which they could not answer. Only Mark tells us that the people heard him gladly. They may have enjoyed hearing their leaders confounded.
This brings us to the Gospel for this Sunday and the final teaching of Jesus’ time in the Temple. He begins with a warning about the scribes who love “being greeted obsequiously” as the Jerusalem Bible graphically puts it. It is a strong warning but it is one which the Church itself has failed to heed all too often in its history. Notable of course is the comment about devouring widow’s property.
The opening comment about Jesus teaching is not repeated so what follows is linked to the warning. Another comment unique to Mark is that Jesus deliberately sat and watched the giving of donations at the treasury. How he knew the woman was a widow is beside the point. Her penny, her generosity was more than that of the wealthy donors. On the one hand, it takes further the warning about widows’ property which Jesus has just made. Her penny is going to a rich and powerful institution whose destruction will immediately be foretold by Jesus.
On the other hand, the complete self giving of the woman “all she had to live on” is about to be fulfilled by Jesus himself, the Son of Man who came to serve and not to be served. Such was her commitment to the faith in the God whose worship was celebrated in the Temple whether the priests were worthy or not.
The psalm then enables us to connect the Gospel with the reading from the first book of Kings. This psalm begins the great chorus of praise which brings the Psalter to its climax. Just before the verses for this Sunday, the psalm reminds us of the unreliability of humans, “do not put your trust in princes”. That may be an appropriate comment on the Gospel. The verses of the psalm we do hear remind us by contrast of the complete reliability of our God: “We may be unfaithful but he is always faithful” as Saint Paul puts it in one of his letters.. The psalm is a response to the story of Elijah being fed by the widow. The widow in this story is in a different situation to the widow in the Gospel. Elijah having declared a drought, God then looks after him and that is the role of this widow. She takes a risk that Elijah is truly bringing the word of God and will care for her and her son. That her trust is vindicated is her clear conclusion a little later in the story after Elijah raises the dead son to life.
Always, therefore, “The Lord therefore keeps faith for ever."
1 That is the beginning of chapter 13 of Mark’s Gospel