Demand changes to structured injustice

by Thomas Gumbleton

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On a weekend when the parish family is being asked, as you are today, to sign pledge cards for the coming year indicating your support of the parish and its service to the members, but also all of its outreach programs, it would be a real temptation, and maybe you would expect that I and any of the priests preaching this weekend would really focus on that poor widow, giving from her very need while others give from their abundance, make everybody feel guilty if you don't really give a lot.

Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time
1 Kgs 17:10-16
Psalms 146:7, 8-9, 9-10
Heb 9:24-28
Mark 12:38-44
or Mark 12:41-44
Full text of the readings

But actually, that probably isn't the main point of today's Gospel lesson. It's important to listen to the first part, which provides the context from within which Jesus sights the example of the widow. The context shows us Jesus preaching harshly against those who exploit the widow, the orphan, and the poor. "Beware of those teachers of the law, the very teachers, the religious leaders who enjoy walking around in long robes being greeted in the marketplace and who like to occupy reserved seats in the synagogue, the first places at banquets."

They like to be given a lot of attention, the religious leaders. Jesus said, "They even devour the widows' and the orphans' goods while they make a show of their long prayers, calling attention to themselves." "Devour the widows and the orphan's goods," they exploit them, do injustice to them. Here Jesus is reminding us that it's important, yes, to reach out to the poor in the context of this Gospel lesson and the Scriptures during the time of Jesus and the time of the chosen people. The Scriptures highlight the widow and the orphan -- the most vulnerable people in that society.

They had no means to support themselves and they were dependent upon the charity of other people. But not only are they not being provided with charity, Jesus points out they're being exploited, used. In our own time (this is really the important message of this Gospel) we should be listening to what our church teaching has been telling us through our Catholic social teaching.

It's very explicit, very strong and Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II, Pope John XXIII, and now Pope Francis—I'm sure you recall how Francis has been talking about what he calls (and this is from the teachings of the church; he's using the words of our teachings) the structures of injustice. Where there's an organized exploitation that is unjust, where through public policies, through our laws, poor people end up receiving the harshest treatment.

How is it that we live in a society where, as we see happening so clearly, the rich and the ultra rich keep getting richer and those at the bottom becoming poorer within our own country as well as within the international community. "So few have so much and so many have so little." That was the cry of Archbishop Oscar Romero about his tiny country of El Salvador. But it's a cry that Pope Francis is making about the world situation, about our own situation.

How can it be just for people to work full time, show up every day, but end up with a wage that is below the level of poverty? Our Catholic social teaching, which is trying to help us evolve a society that is truly just indicates that every person who is willing to work and does work has a right to a living wage, not a wage that leaves them in desperation and poverty, but a living wage.

If the system can't provide that, there must be something wrong with the system that we have to change. This is maybe what we need to think about and reflect on as deeply as possible as we listen to today's lessons -- the first lesson and the Gospel lesson about outreach to the poor. Why are they poor? We're in an election period. Those running for public office, especially for the highest office -- president, provide their economic programs.

It's important that we examine what those programs are, what they will do to the poor and for the poor. If they're going to bring about more structured injustice, we have to demand changes. That's the most important lesson as we listen to today's Scriptures. We must make sure that we are not like the people of Jesus' time, especially those who should be giving the best example, the religious leaders.

We have to make sure that we do not support and participate in policies that, as Jesus says, "Devour the widows and the orphans' goods, exploit them, and bring further injustice into their lives." But then there is a second important way that we must reflect on today's lessons. Again, both the first lesson from Elijah's experience with the poor widow of Zarephath and the widow in the Gospel -- they provide us with a lesson about our own attitude toward material goods.

Last Sunday it was kind of out of sequence because the Sunday lessons were those of the feast day of All Saints rather than the Sunday of the year. So we had the Gospel of the Beatitudes. The very first beatitude is important for us to reflect on again, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, theirs is the reign of God." What is Jesus teaching us about being poor, or as in Matthew's Gospel, "poor in spirit?" Luke's gospel is more direct and brief, "Blessed are the poor; woe to the rich."

But what is Jesus asking of us? Does he want everyone to live in destitution and absolute poverty, be like the widow of Zarephath or the widow in the Gospel without any means? Of course not! Every person has a right to a full human life. Every person has the right to the use of the goods of this planet that God made for all and not for a few. Jesus wants us all to have an opportunity to grow and develop into the full human persons we can be.

So we need to have access to the material goods that God has provided. But a problem develops when gradually, and it can happen I think easily without our hardly noticing it, noticing what is happening in our culture, which is a culture that glorifies riches, that makes it seem that those who have the most are going to be the happiest, that makes it seem like we always must have more, we must have the latest, the best.

That culture can enter into our own thinking without our being aware of it and we begin to want more and more and before we notice it, we've accumulated more material goods than we need. By having more than we need, we are actually depriving others of what they need and what they have a right to. Our first teaching tells us, in fact, and it's a hard saying, "No one has a right to what is beyond their need when others lack the barest necessities."

You've heard that before, but we have to let it penetrate and help us to truly understand that it's wrong to accumulate material wealth beyond what we need. What happens also as we get caught up in our own culture where wealth becomes so important is that we begin to find our security in that wealth. We think that's where we're going to always be sure of what we have, what we need, and we fail then to recognize our deep and constant dependence upon God.

After all, it is God who has given us all these goods of the earth. It is God who has given us our very existence. It is God on whom we truly depend and in whom we ultimately find the fullness of life that will be ours forever. If we place our dependence and our security on the goods of this world, we are really failing to enter into that blessedness that Jesus is speaking about, "Blessed are the poor in spirit," those who know that our trust, our security is only ultimately in God who gives us all. Isn't that the lesson the two widows teach us?

The widow from Zarephath, who Elijah comes to understand that she depends totally upon God. So she shares what she has and God does hear the cry of the poor and provides for her. The widow in the Gospel also knows that she depends upon God and isn't clinging even to her last two coins. She depends upon God, somehow trusts in God. A few years ago when that terrible earthquake happened in Haiti, I traveled there a very short time after the earthquake to visit the parish where I've been connected for a number of years through the pastor who is a Haitian priest and a very good friend of mine.

In that parish, others and I help to support a meal program where the church provides a hot meal every day to hundreds of children, but also a clinic. I went down there with others to bring medical supplies that were urgently needed at the time. The medical people with us were able to help in some of the immediate emergencies that developed. But the thing that I remember about that trip was we stay at a guesthouse when I go down there.

It was damaged in the earthquake so it wasn't safe to sleep inside. So we slept outside on the ground. I remember the first morning waking up at dawn and hearing beautiful singing. I wondered what was happening. People were singing joyful songs, songs of praise to God, thanksgiving to God. I discovered that it was people in the neighborhood, some whose homes had been destroyed, and some who had lost family members.

But they gathered in the morning (and they would do this each morning) in that neighborhood in a small open space where they had made a small chapel where they could praise God in the morning. Each morning you could wake up to this singing and it was just an extraordinary experience. I thought, "These people, poor as they are, desperate at this moment, still understand their ultimate security is in God. They sing God's praises, sing words of gratitude to God for the gifts that they have."

For me it was an extraordinary experience and a coming to an understanding of what it means to depend upon God and to put your security in God and not material wealth. That's a lesson that I find very challenging as I try to imitate these poor people, imitate the widow of the Gospel and the widow of Elijah's time. But all of us, I hope, will try to imitate those poor in our own midst who show us this example, but also the people in the Scriptures who truly show us what Jesus means when he says, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, theirs is the reign of God."

As we come to an understanding of that and begin to live with our real trust in God and not our material wealth, place all of our security in God and not our material wealth, the reign of God becomes ours, that situation where we know we are loved by God and ultimately will receive the fullness of life from God. The lessons today do urge us to reach out to the poor, to be generous in sharing, but most of all, to develop that spirit of total trust in God, a spirit that will bring calmness, peace and joy into our hearts.

[Homily given at St. Philomena Parish, Detroit. The transcripts of Bishop Gumbleton's homilies are posted weekly to Sign up here to receive an email alert when the latest homily is posted.]

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