Reading 1: 1 Kings: 17:10-16
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm: 146:7, 8-9, 9-10
Reading 2: Hebrews: 9:24-28
Gospel: Mark: 12:38-44
One of the most poignant images in scripture may be today’s story of the poor widow who approaches the temple donation box holding her last two small coins. The Jerusalem Temple was the designated place where Jews of that time went to offer ritual sacrifices in order to worship God, give thanks for favors received, and atone for sin. The Jerusalem Temple especially needed donations during Jesus’s time because it was in the process of being renovated by Herod. The Temple fundraisers no doubt worked hard to assure major donors that their financial contributions were a participation in this spiritual mission. Yet Jesus affirms that the poor widow is the only one who has really understood how to participate in the deepest meaning of what the Temple stood for.
“Sacrifice” is a difficult concept, especially today. The ritual immolations of animals or other valuable goods that were common in many ancient cultures are largely incomprehensible to people today. Most of us do understand the more personal meaning of sacrifice as giving up something or being willing to endure discomfort for the sake of a loved person or cause. The idea that sacrifice is at the core of loving God, however, tends not to sit well with contemporary folk. Too often it has been interpreted to mean that God somehow wants people to deprive themselves and to suffer, the more the better. This does not seem to correlate well with Jesus’s image of an Abba God who is infinitely loving, compassionate, and merciful.
The book of Hebrews attempts to clear this up – although, once again, using language and images that are difficult for our contemporary culture to comprehend. Essentially, it teaches us that the core of all sacrifice is the self-giving of Christ to his Abba. At its heart, the predominant dimension of this self-giving is not pain but joy – the same joy that echoes in us whenever we love someone enough to want to pour ourselves out for them!
Hebrews also teaches us that because Jesus is the Son of God, this sacrifice is a once-and-for-all event. Ritual sacrifices, as well as our own daily-life sacrifices for loved ones, have to be repeated frequently, but the mutual self-giving of Father and Son is eternal. Its historical manifestation in Jesus’s violent death on the cross need only occur once, because in it the reconciliation of creation to God has been completed
All of our sacrifices, then, are meant to be fundamentally a participation in Jesus’s act of self-giving, with joy, peace, and freedom at their heart even when they are costly on other levels. The challenge for us is that many other motives get mixed up in our choices. Whether we are sacrificing financially, ritually, or personally, we often have subtle fantasies of rewards such as honor, status, long life, recognition as a hero, or other kinds of relief from our troubles. This is what Jesus saw when he watched the rich put their large donations into the Temple treasury.
The fact that the poor widow’s offering to the Temple was small would not have automatically freed her from such less than perfect motivations. Jesus saw, however, that this woman really had arrived at such complete trust in God that she could literally give her all freely and joyfully. In this way, she was already participating in the spiritual core of his eternal sacrifice – his self-giving in love to his Abba. As Hebrews puts it, this is entering the true sanctuary – the sanctuary of God’s Heart, of which all earthly temples are meant to be symbols.
Sr. Mary Frohlich, RSCJ
Professor Emerita of Spirituality