Let me open with a joke:
The pastor of a big-city parish answered his rectory door to find a man wearing a face of great anxiety and concern. “Father, there’s a local family in dire need that could really use the church’s help.” The priest invited him inside and listened to the details. “The mother is a young widow with ten kids who lost her job last month. She’s been looking for work, but they’re barely keeping food on the table. Worst of all, unless they can scrape together $300 for rent by this Friday, they’ll be evicted and thrown out into the street.” The priest replied, “That’s a terrible and difficult situation. By the way, how do you know the family?” The man wiped a tear from the corner of his eye and said, “Oh… well, I happen to be their landlord.”
Hypocrisy is the pretense of holding beliefs, standards, behaviors, or virtues that one does not truly hold. Not many good things are usually said about hypocrisy, but I can say one. Usually, hypocrisy acknowledges (however insincerely) what is really true and truly good. Even a corrupt politician speaks the truth when he or she says that government should be transparent, politicians should be honest, and campaign promises should be kept. A wedding ring is a visible sign that proclaims marriage to be a sacred and lifelong bond even on the hand of an adulterer. Hypocrisy is the homage, the respect, that vice shows to virtue.
In today’s gospel, Jesus talks about the scribes and a poor widow. He praises her, but criticizes them. Jesus saw her at one of the Temple’s thirteen contribution trumpets in the court of the women. These were donation chests topped as with tall road cones, but made of metal, with an opening at the top for dropping in coins. The coins of large contributions would make a large racket, like how a slot machine pays out in a casino. But the poor widow’s two coins fell in with quiet: *click* *click*
Jesus called his disciples to himself to point her out to them. (Perhaps he saw in her an image of himself, the one who trusts in God and is willing to give everything to him.) After criticizing scribes who “devour the houses of widows” as those who “will receive a very severe condemnation,” he praises this poor widow’s gift.
Most homilies preached around the world today will be about the poor widow’s trusting generosity. (You may have noticed that our lectionary gives the option of omitting the scribes from this reading entirely, making a brief gospel reading even shorter.) But today I will be preaching about the scribes and from an angle that I would bet you’ve never heard before: what we have to learn from what the scribes were doing right.
Jesus condemns the scribes for their hypocrisy, and rightly so, but at least they acted like God and true religion were the most important things in their lives. Do our acquaintances at work or school have reason to think that God comes first in our lives? If it were illegal in this country to be a Catholic Christian, would there be enough public evidence to convict you? Our words and actions should reflect our faith in Jesus and his Church.
The scribes took seats of honor in synagogues, but at least they were faithfully there each week. God commands us to keep his days holy—every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation. He commands this because he deserves our praise and thanks, but also because he knows how much we need this.
The scribes liked to go around in long robes, but at least they dressed up in a God-honoring way. Our clothing should always be modest and dignified, but especially at church. How would you dress for your boss at work, for an meeting with the president, or an audience with the pope? How much more then should we dress well to come before God at Mass.
The scribes accepted greetings in marketplaces and places of honor at banquets, but at least they were active and known in their community. We should not be mere homebodies, but involved in our own community.
The scribes recited lengthy prayers for show, but at least they were not afraid to acknowledge God before others. Do you pray before meals at restaurants? Do you talk about Jesus or your faith with anyone? When someone shares their burdens with you, do you offer to pray with them? (Try it sometime. They will probably be more receptive than you think.) We should not be afraid.
Why did Jesus say the scribes deserved a severe condemnation? Because they focused on externals and disregarded what was within. They cared about fancy clothes, and prayers and deeds that others would notice, but did not care whether widows became destitute. It’s fine to desire friendship—it’s one of life’s great blessings—but we must desire God’s friendship more. We naturally care what others think of us—no one wants to be hated—but we should care more about what God thinks about us. The scribes were attentive to appearances, but neglected the truth and love.
After the poor widow put her coins into the treasury, the gospel says that Jesus called his disciples to himself. He summoned his followers to physically draw nearer in order to teach them and highlight her deed. But in a deeper sense, Jesus was calling them to his very self, that they would come to resemble him like the widow did. Jesus is the man of integrity whose exterior words and actions perfectly align with his inner-self. He wants all of us to be like himself. Jesus wills that our secret selves would be as noble and admirable as our public personas, and that our interior faith would be reflected through all of our external words and actions. Like the landlord in the opening joke, whether or not Jesus is welcome to dwell and live with us as he desires, increasing our likeness to his, is entirely up to us.