Thursday, November 05, 2015

The Economics of Heaven: The 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

In this 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, the Church calls us to look more deeply at reality, beyond simply conventional wisdom toward the dawning life of the world to come. In the new world, there is a different economic system, one in which self-giving generosity, no matter how meager in the eyes of this age, is able to generate a fantastic return on one’s investment. This dynamic is mysterious present in our first reading that comes from 1 Kings 17:10-16.

First Reading: I Kings 17:10-16
In those days, Elijah the prophet went to Zarephath.
As he arrived at the entrance of the city,
a widow was gathering sticks there; he called out to her,
"Please bring me a small cupful of water to drink."
She left to get it, and he called out after her,
"Please bring along a bit of bread."
She answered, "As the LORD, your God, lives,
I have nothing baked; there is only a handful of flour in my jar
and a little oil in my jug.
Just now I was collecting a couple of sticks,
to go in and prepare something for myself and my son;
when we have eaten it, we shall die."
Elijah said to her, "Do not be afraid.
Go and do as you propose.
But first make me a little cake and bring it to me.
Then you can prepare something for yourself and your son.
For the LORD, the God of Israel, says,
'The jar of flour shall not go empty,
nor the jug of oil run dry,
until the day when the LORD sends rain upon the earth.'"
She left and did as Elijah had said.
She was able to eat for a year, and he and her son as well;
the jar of flour did not go empty,
nor the jug of oil run dry,
as the LORD had foretold through Elijah.
In this remarkable story, Elijah demonstrates his divine sanction as a prophet of God, yet in a surprising manner. First, it is surprising in that Elijah’s miracle provides for a rather unexpected beneficiary, a woman from Sidon. Outside of the bounds of Israel, this widow would not have been the natural choice for a miracle to demonstrate Elijah’s prophetic ministry (cf. Luke 4:26).

Second, it makes remarkable use of meager means in order to supply a miraculous return, in this case, food for a year. While this certainly constitutes as a miracle and is thereby not normative, in jumping ahead to this week’s gospel, Jesus makes the inner logic of this miracle normative for the economics of the kingdom of God.

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 146: 7, 8-9, 9-10
R. (1b) Praise the Lord, my soul!
R. Alleluia.

The LORD keeps faith forever,
secures justice for the oppressed,
gives food to the hungry.
The LORD sets captives free.
The LORD gives sight to the blind.
The LORD raises up those who were bowed down;
the LORD loves the just.
The LORD protects strangers.
The fatherless and the widow he sustains,
but the way of the wicked he thwarts.
The LORD shall reign forever;
your God, O Zion, through all generations. Alleluia.
Second Reading: Hebrews 9:24-28
Christ did not enter into a sanctuary made by hands,
a copy of the true one, but heaven itself,
that he might now appear before God on our behalf.
Not that he might offer himself repeatedly,
as the high priest enters each year into the sanctuary
with blood that is not his own;
if that were so, he would have had to suffer repeatedly
from the foundation of the world.
But now once for all he has appeared at the end of the ages
to take away sin by his sacrifice.
Just as it is appointed that human beings die once,
and after this the judgment, so also Christ,
offered once to take away the sins of many,
will appear a second time, not to take away sin
but to bring salvation to those who eagerly await him.

Gospel: Mark 12:38-44
In the course of his teaching Jesus said to the crowds,
"Beware of the scribes, who like to go around in long robes
and accept greetings in the marketplaces,
seats of honor in synagogues,
and places of honor at banquets.
They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext
recite lengthy prayers.
They will receive a very severe condemnation."

He sat down opposite the treasury
and observed how the crowd put money into the treasury.
Many rich people put in large sums.
A poor widow also came and put in two small coins worth a few cents.
Calling his disciples to himself, he said to them,
"Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more
than all the other contributors to the treasury.
For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth,
but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had,
her whole livelihood."

Like Elijah’s miracle, we encounter another poor widow with unexceptional means. Once again, the meager gift is able to yield a fantastic return, yet this time by means of the economics of the kingdom of God. How so?
Taken merely in itself, Jesus is simply stating that the poor widow gave proportionally more than all the others, for she gave everything whereas the others gave from their surplus wealth.
Yet if this statement is taken within the whole of Jesus’ teaching regarding almsgiving and the kingdom of God, the widow’s gift also can be seen as yielding a fantastic, albeit yet unseen return in the kingdom of God (cf. Matt 5:19-21; 16:24-27; 25;31-40).
In his remarkable monograph entitled Wages of Cross-Bearing and Debt of Sin: The Economy of Heaven in Matthew’s Gospel, my good friend Nathan Eubank has demonstrated that in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus invites his disciples to invest their money and their entire lives in the economy of heaven.
By investing in this economy, Eubank argues, Jesus is calling his disciples to make a better kind of investment, that is, by giving their money and their very lives in order to gain immeasurably more on their investment than they could ever imagine, eternal wages in the kingdom of heaven.
While our reading comes from Mark’s gospel, it is possible to view the same kind of economics at work, for in giving all she had the widow demonstrates the kind of investment that serves as the basis of the economics of the kingdom of God.
Moreover, this would then serve to connect the Gospel passage to our first reading, for both passages would point to how God can “miraculously” turn the meager means of poor widows into fantastic gain, well beyond the expectations of conventional wisdom but commensurate with the wisdom of the kingdom of God.
How is this possible? As the author of Hebrews states in our second reading, Jesus has entered on our behalf into the heavenly temple (and its treasury) and through his filling up all justice (cf. Matt 3: 15), his wages serve as the basis for allowing the little we give to yield “miraculous” return in the world to come.
Here is the catch: to gain such a great return on our investments, the requirement is a full gift of self. However, this is the very same kind of gift of self that Jesus himself gave, the fullest demonstration of the  restorative justice of God spoken of the responsorial Psalm.

What does this mean for us? In short, we are called to follow the poor widows mentioned above and offer all we have and are to God. However meager our gift of self may be, God is able to guarantee a disproportionately great return on our investment, eternal wages in the life of the world to come.
However, this is only possible because Jesus himself has already offered his life in such a manner, providing the very basis for the rest of his followers to do the same. In other words, it is through the empowerment of grace that we are able to offer our entire lives to God and receive an eternal return on our gift of self. 

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