Exercising our ministries of service
Exercising our ministries of service
By Fr. Alex McAllister SDS
We have two widows in these Gospel Readings: the widow who fed Elijah and the widow who put her mite into the temple treasury. Neither of these widows are given a name and they were both poor, but the most important thing about them was that they were open-handed with what little they had.
Both these widows are rightly praised in the scriptures. Widows were at the bottom of the social heap and because of this they were frequently exploited and oppressed and this was invariably condoned by the structures of society.
By definition a widow has known suffering since she has experienced bereavement. She has suffered the loss of her husband, the loss of protection, the loss of status, the loss of income and in those days she experienced deep social stigma. In all these ways she is poorer in the eyes of this world; but of course, for the very same reasons she is that much richer in the eyes of Jesus
In the text Jesus points out this particular widow in the temple, not so much for praise as for comparison with the scribes he has just so roundly condemned. The exaggeration involved –she gave all she had to live on– is probably a bit of an exaggeration and surely illustrates Jesus' intent to show the scribes up.
The link between the two halves of this extract from the Gospel is additionally highlighted by the fact that there are widows in both segments. Jesus accuses the scribes of showing off in the synagogue while at the same time swallowing the property of widows; he then goes on to point out the generosity and great sacrifice of the widow with the two small coins.
Jesus makes a very severe charge against the scribes. But there was a good reason for this charge. An expert in the law was supposed to take no payment for his teaching; it was to be something he did for free alongside other more remunerative work. However, the Pharisees had, by this time, convinced the people that there was no greater religious privilege than supporting a Pharisee or a scribe and so enable him to devote himself entirely to the study of the law.
Widows among many others were imposed on to keep the scribes and Pharisees in the manner to which they had become accustomed. There was undoubtedly a good deal of male chauvinism mixed in with this as well as taking advantage of their religious position.
Jesus openly condemns them for their actions. First for their privileges and arrogance and then for exploiting their position to better themselves financially.
These are charges that can be made against the religious establishment not only then, but also now, and indeed at almost any time in-between. Those who are chosen for religious service must always keep in mind that they are chosen for precisely that: service, not privilege.
You are not chosen because you have somehow earned high office and privilege, but because others have determined that you have the necessary gifts to serve the community and are able to help meet their religious needs. That is what the word ministry means, service.
A priest or a bishop does deserve a certain amount of respect. But it is respect for what he represents. This is actually respect for Christ being paid to him through his representative. Actually all of us gathered here are Christ's representatives and we all owe respect to each other, not more to one or less to another depending on the office they hold.
We have heard in recent years how certain priests have abused their position of trust and how this has on occasion been deliberately ignored by those in authority. We don’t need to go into the matter now but just to say that while a lot of lessons have been learned we must all be on the alert and implement the appropriate procedures when necessary especially in the matter of safeguarding children.
Last Sunday we heard Jesus telling us that the greatest commandment was to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, all our minds and all our strength and our neighbour as ourselves.
This highlights the fact that in the exercise of our ministry sheer goodness is not enough. We have also to use not just our heart, but also all our intelligence and all our strength.
There are very many people engaged in ministry in this parish. Some serve in the ordained ministry as priests and deacons, some as religious, as catechists, as Eucharistic ministers, as altar servers, as teachers, as readers and writers, as musicians and singers, as flower arrangers, as cleaners, as members of the parish council, on the social club committee, in the Octopus theatre group, in the various uniformed organisations and societies and in all kinds of other ways.
And we are all also engaged in ministry with those we live and work with, but most especially towards our own children.
Yes, we have to carry out our various ministries with great goodness and purity of heart, but also with great intelligence, also open to new developments in thinking, and in a way which is constantly on the alert to root out cosy assumptions which exclude or inadvertently hurt others.
The clergy are easily criticised for clericalism and rightly so where it exists, but every single one of us must be on the alert for our own particular areas of neglect.
Like those widows we exercise ministries of service, but the fact that we carry them out from the goodness of our hearts is insufficient. We must carry them out with intelligence, with insight, with great responsibility, with appropriate openness to new ideas and in a self-critical manner.
If we don't, we fall into precisely the same trap as the scribes and Pharisees. They received the lash of Jesus' tongue –we surely don't want to expose ourselves to anything worse.
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