11 Nov 2018
32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Sacrifice is central to our lives as Christians. Whether we’re here at Mass, or out and about doing our thing as families, as friends, or even as individuals, sacrifice is essentially what defines us as Christians. And that’s not just for Catholics; that goes for anyone who would call him- or herself a follower of Jesus Christ. At the heart of Christian worship is sacrifice. It’s why the crucifix holds a central place in Christian art. Sacrifice is (or is supposed to be) central to who we are and what we’re about.
And this is something our readings this weekend make us reflect on. We hear about the sacrifice of the widow at Zarephath—using up the last of her flour and oil to feed someone. We hear about the sacrifice of the widow at the Temple—putting her two cents into the treasury, “her whole livelihood.” We hear about Jesus offering the sacrifice of himself, both on earth and in heaven. This weekend, we cannot escape sacrifice.
And if there’s a main idea to our readings today it’s that: Sacrifice should cost me something. Sacrifice should cost us something; we should “feel it.” Now, Jesus is not asking us to be in misery and pain. He’s not asking that; instead, he’s asking us to make sure our sacrifices are actually sacrifices. And he makes that request through the little snapshot in the gospel.
“Many rich people put in large sums” into the treasury. Then “a poor widow also came and put in two small coins.” And Jesus says, “Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more...[because the others] contributed from their surplus,” whereas she “contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.” Jesus is trying to get across the point that the widow “felt” her sacrifice, whereas the others did not necessarily.
It’s the difference between a sacrifice of my “extra stuff” (a sacrifice which doesn’t really touch “me”), and a sacrifice which is “me.” When Elijah came to Zarephath, the widow didn’t say, “Well, I don’t have much flour and oil, but let me go see if my neighbor can spare some.” No, she used up what was hers, even if it was all she had. And Jesus on the Cross sacrificed his own blood, not the blood of a sacrificial animal (which would be the usual sacrifice to make at that time).
There’s a big difference between those people at the Temple who gave out of their surplus, and the widow who had no surplus and gave of herself, her “whole livelihood” (or in Greek we could read that “she gave her whole life.” There’s a big difference there. God is looking for self-sacrifice—not the sacrifice of somebody else. And God walks the talk: he himself was sacrificed on the Cross. So he’s not asking us to do something he himself hasn’t already done.
Now, granted, very few of us (if any of us here) will be called upon to make such a dramatic sacrifice as Jesus. But sacrifice is still central to our lives as Christians.
For example, friendship is a good thing. It’s a great gift from God to have true friends in this life. But, there is a cost involved with that good thing; and the cost is sacrifice. When it’s the end of the day, and you’re ready to just wind down, your friend might call or text, and he or she might need to talk. Not just a “hey, how’s it going” kind of talk, but a talk that requires a caring heart. Well, that’s where the self-sacrifice comes in. You ignore the fact that you’re tired, and you be the friend. And it costs you something, and you feel it. You’re tired, and if your body had its way, you’d be asleep already. But you forego the sleep and you give your time and attention to that other person—willingly. Sacrifice is part of who we are as Christians.
And, of course, any parent knows that children bring all sorts of opportunities for self-sacrifice. “I’d like to go to the game, but...little Matthew is sick and I need to stay home. It’s my responsibility.” Or “I want my kids to like me, but I just have to be the parent and say ‘no’ this time, even if makes them mad.” Parents feel what it’s like to sacrifice.
Politics is another area for sacrifice. For instance, Christians are absolutely pro-life. And it takes a certain amount of courage to stand up for that, especially when you know that other people might treat you quite badly when you stand up for life. But that’s the sacrifice: Being a willing target of others’ hostility, even the hostility of other Christians.
In this politically charged time in our history, you almost have to expect to be bad-mouthed if you dare to stand up for what you believe. Politics can be a vicious arena, and there are plenty of chances to practice self-sacrifice. And that are sacrifices we might feel; they’re sacrifices that might cost us something.
And, of course, sacrifice touches parish life, too. Every volunteer we have is practicing self-sacrifice; giving their time, their efforts for the good of the community, with the only “payment” being those words: Thank you. Even the employees have opportunities to practice sacrifice whenever they say ‘okay’ to one of Father’s off-the-wall ideas. Really, we each practice self-sacrifice every time we give somebody the benefit of the doubt; when we choose the ways of mercy and non-judgement when, really, we want nothing more than judge somebody else. And we all know how that kind of sacrifice feels like: it feels like a tongue that’s been bitten.
Sacrifice runs all through parish life. And a really concrete way we experience that is, of course, with the collection basket. Sacrifice makes the parish and the school run. We’re not like a civic government that can just levy taxes. The bulk of what we do is supported by people’s sacrificial offering. Without financial sacrifice, we cease to be (a parish). And so, talk about money and the collection basket shouldn’t be shied away from; it should be right out there in the open like any other sacrifice we’re each asked to make. Without a healthy sense of sacrifice, the parish—the Church—doesn’t exist; whether that’s the sacrifice of money, or the sacrifice of time, or the sacrificial offering of our gifts and our talents. The life of any Christian community runs on sacrifice; in particular, the sacrifices that we “feel.”
But, in saying that, it has to be acknowledged that sacrifice is a two-way street. We’re called to sacrifice because of our baptism and our profession of faith in Christ. We’re called to a life of sacrifice. But, we’re also called to receive others’ sacrifice with gratitude, and to reverence that for what it is: a sacrifice, a self-gift.
Now, we hear today about Elijah and the scribes. And they’re on opposite ends of a spectrum. Both ask for sacrifice from others. They both do it. But Elijah asks, knowing that the widow’s sacrifice won’t bring her any harm in the long run. He asks for a sacrifice to help her be a better Jew. But when the scribes ask for a sacrifice, it’s only to fill their treasury. Even if the sacrifice is intended for the Temple, there’s no attention given to the well-being of the widow, the one making the sacrifice. As Jesus puts it, the scribes “devour the houses of widows.” The scribes have little respect for others’ sacrifice as a sacrifice. But Elijah does.
It’s as we say during Mass: May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands…for the praise and glory of his name…for our good…and the good of his holy Church. Sacrifice is meant to build up, not to destroy.
And so, any time we ask for a sacrifice from someone else—whether that’s among friends or family, at work, or in the parish, or from the parish; whether it’s a sacrifice of time, or money, or gifts and talents—we want to follow the example of Elijah (and Jesus). Others’ self-sacrifice should be reverenced and cherished, not abused or taken for granted. And perhaps the best way to do that is to make sure that we “feel” our own sacrifices, so we can appreciate the sacrifices of others.
And so, as we gather here at the Altar of God, we approach with gratitude in our hearts. Jesus’ self-sacrifice is given to us and for our benefit. May we, in turn, take that same spirit of sacrifice into the world, into our homes and our hearts.