Sunday, 7 November 2021

Is it more blessed to give than to receive,
or more blessed to receive than to give?

‘He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched … A poor widow … put in two small copper coins’ (Mark 12: 41-42) … small coins for sale in an antique shop in Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

7 November 2021 (Third Sunday before Advent):

9.30 a.m.: The Parish Eucharist, Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton

11.30 a.m.: Morning Prayer, Saint Brendan’s Church, Tarbert

Readings: Ruth 3: 1-5; 4: 13-17; Psalm 127; Hebrews 9: 24-28; Mark 12: 38-44

There is a link to the readings HERE.

The Cooke window by John Henry Dearle and Morris & Co in Saint Editha’s Church, Tamworth … the two central figures, Ruth (left) and Naomi (right) are flanked by Samuel (left) and David (right); the text beneath the two women reads, ‘Intreat me not to leave thee’ (Ruth 1: 16) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen

I have to say this morning that we have been overwhelmed by the generosity of the parishioners and parishes shown last weekend.

It was unexpected and I would not like to disempower anyone, but it was undeserved and unnecessary. I am here because I want to be, not because I want anything.

And without drawing patronising comparisons, I really did wonder later last Sunday whether your generosity came at the expense of what we are reading about this morning – at the expense of the ‘widow’s mite’?

I have to understand too that your generosity is not just personal affection, but also a sign of how you want to express your commitment in faith too.

In the two alternative first readings provided in the Lectionary this morning (Ruth 3: 1-5; 4: 13-17; and I Kings 17: 8-16), we meet widows who are outsiders in the community, who have very little, and yet who are rewarded with the bread of life because of their surprising commitment to God.

Ruth is an outsider who commits herself to following Naomi and Naomi’s God. At first, she seems to be reduced to depending on the leftovers of the harvest. Yet, her unexpected, and at times bewildering, faith is rewarded not only with personal and domestic security but with a reward that she could never have known about: she becomes the ancestor of David, and she has a key role in the story of salvation.

The unnamed widow who offers food, bread and shelter to Elijah finds new life when her son is restored to life.

Psalm 127 could be read as a promise of God’s response to faith, rather than faith setting demands on God.

So, the readings this morning challenge us to ask whether faith is expressed in praying for what we want from God? Or is faith about giving thanks to God for God’s abundant generosity, even when we have little in life?

In the Gospel reading, the demands of people of faith, seen in the ambitions of some scribes, is in sharp contrast to the widow in the Temple, who is generous in her faith but seems to make no demands on God.

Who am I more like?

Those who seek the best seats in church and in society, when they already have so much, so that I will be noticed and respected?

Or the widow, who does not know or care whether anyone notices her, but who continues to love God despite all she has lost in life?

Back in the late 1970s or early 1980s, I wrote a feature in The Irish Times that was critical of Japanese development aid policies at the time. It said that the Japanese economy received more in return than Japan gave to support developing countries. A clever sub-editor wrote a headline that said, more or less, ‘When it is more blessed to receive than to give’ (see Acts 20:35).

When we give, do we hope that we will receive more in return as some sort of divine reward?

This morning’s Gospel reading (Mark 12: 38-44) comes after a scribe has put a question to Christ: which is the greatest precept in the law? His agreement that to love God and to love one’s neighbour are the most important has led Jesus to tell him that he is almost ready for the kingdom of God.

Now, as Christ teaches in the synagogue, he warns of certain scribes, professional interpreters of the religious law, who walk around ostentatiously, seek honour in the market-places or public places, and seek the best seats in places of worship and at banquets.

The best seats in the synagogue were near the Holy Ark, where the Torah scrolls were kept and faced the congregation. The places of honour at a banquet were couches at the host’s table. Both gave people high visibility that brought with it higher social prestige and status.

Some scribes, as the legal trustees of a widow’s estate, charged exorbitant fees for their services. The fee was usually a part of the estate, but some took the widows’ houses, yet kept up the appearances of piety. They will be judged harshly in the greatest court of all on Judgment Day.

Christ then moves from the synagogue to the Temple, where he sits down and watches the people bringing money as an offering to the Treasury (verses 41-44). The Treasury is in the outer court of the Temple, where people placed their offerings in chests.

As he is watching, Christ singles out a poor widow as an example of good discipleship. Widows were often poor, vulnerable and exploited, as Christ reminds us in the first part of this reading. Yet she makes a real sacrifice in giving two leptas, two small copper coins, the lowest value coins then in circulation.

He tells those who are listening that she ‘has put in more than all’ the other contributors that day, for the rich people were giving only what they do not need, while ‘she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’

The men of power in our Gospel reading link what they receive with how they are blessed. The poor widow in our Gospel reading is blessed and gives of what she has.

Generosity, as in these Lectionary readings, must always be freely given, but should never be sought.

When it is sought, it becomes coercive, and can never be properly measured.

When it is freely given, it can never be measured but always becomes a sign, a real expression not just of the generosity of the giver, but of the faith of the giver. And then, God becomes the true giver, and the true receiver.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

‘He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched … A poor widow … put in two small copper coins’ (Mark 12: 41-42) … the Treasury at Delphi (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Mark 12: 38-44 (NRSVA):

38 As he taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! 40 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’

41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’

They ‘like to … to have the best … places of honour at banquets’ (Mark 12: 38-39) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical Colour: Green (Ordinary Time, Year B)

The Collect:

Almighty Father,
whose will is to restore all things
in your beloved Son, the king of all:
Govern the hearts and minds of those in authority,
and bring the families of the nations,
divided and torn apart by the ravages of sin,
to be subject to his just and gentle rule;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Collect of the Word:

O God,
whose blessed Son came into the world
that he might destroy the works of evil
and make us your children
and heirs of eternal life:
grant that, having this hope,
we may purify ourselves as he is pure;
that, when he comes again
with power and great glory,
we may be made like him
in his eternal and glorious kingdom;
where he lives and reigns with you
and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

Post-Communion Prayer:

God of peace,
whose Son Jesus Christ proclaimed the kingdom
and restored the broken to wholeness of life:
Look with compassion on the anguish of the world,
and by your healing power
make whole both people and nations;
through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

The Scroll of Ruth in a synagogue in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Hymns:

218, And can it be that I should gain (CD 14)
593, O Jesus, I have promised (CD 34)
597, Take my life, and let it be (CD 34)

Villiers Almshouses in Limerick were endowed by Hannah Villiers for the benefit of 12 poor widows (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.



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