Pentecost XXIII – Br. Curtis Almquist

Pentecost XXIII

Mark 12:38-44

38 As he taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’ 41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’

Jesus was compassionate.  A sense of compassion seems continually to have informed his life and ministry.  It is the clearest and prevailing reason why Jesus did what he did and said what he said: because of his compassion for others.  Compassion, which literally means “to suffer with” another person.  Compassion is not just to observe suffering, but actually entering the suffering of another.

Again and again we read in the gospels how Jesus had tender loving mercy for the crowds and he healed their sick. He was moved with compassion because they were distressed and dejected like sheep without a shepherd. He had compassion for those with incurable diseases, for the blind, for those who had nothing to eat, and for widows, as we’ve just heard into today’s gospel. There is always this sense of compassion that informs what he does.  Over and over again Jesus says to people, “Don’t cry,” “Don’t worry,” “Don’t be afraid.”

Think of the stories that Jesus told.  What made the goodSamaritan in the parable good was the compassion he felt for the man left half dead on the roadside. There’s the story of the prodigal son and his father, which is a story about compassion. Again and again we hear that what moved Jesus to work and to weep, to help and to heal was compassion.  And this ultimately gets Jesus into terrible trouble because it challenged the “purity system” that con­trolled his culture. Purity and holiness were inextricably connected.  The Jewish Law said, “You shall be pure as God is pure.”  This purity system, taken to an extreme, kept everyone and everything locked in place: what was clean and what was unclean; what could be touched and not touched; to whom one could speak and not speak; when help could be given and when it could not.

This interlocking purity system in Jesus’ day had several rules.  One rule had to do with your birth.  There was a kind of pecking order, from the best people to the worst people.  The best people were the priests and Levites, and then came the other Jews, and then came those who were Jewish converts, and then people who were not Jewish, and then people who were physically or mentally ill, and then people who were imprisoned or very poor.  The rules: men were the best, women the worst, or at least they were second class.  Bearing children and the monthly menstrual period always made a woman impure.  Certain occupations made you impure, like being a tax collector or a shepherd. It was tragic (but not accidental) that what made a person impure often kept them impure: women could not cease to be women; a poor person did not have money to see a doctor or eat healthy food, and so they stayed sick (which means impure).  Likewise a poor person could not afford a pure animal or bird to bring to the temple to make sacrifice and therefore become “worthy.”  And so they were stuck being an outcast.  “Bad things happen to bad people,” was a prevailing sentiment.

Jesus breaks all these legalistic rules that kept people locked in their places.   For Jesus, the most import “rule” was the justice and love of God. He spends time with “impure” women, and even allows himself to be touched by them. He enters graveyards “defiled” by mentally-ill people, i.e., demon-possessed people.  He eats with anyone who will share their food – most any kind of drink and food – and for that reason he is called a drunkard and glutton.  He didn’t just talk about forgiveness; he was forgiving… and so he had a reputation of being “a friend of sinners,” because he was always with the wrong kind of people.  Jesus faced a “character assassination.”

Jesus refused to follow the “purity rules” that kept everything and everyone locked in their places.   He says, what is most important is the purity of your intentions.  He says the intentions of God, the God whom he calls Father, are that everyone has a place around the table.  Everyone belongs in “the coming kingdom of God.”  We all belong. Jesus says to everyone, come on, come follow me, every single one of you: “Follow my words, follow my way.”  Jesus turned the tables upside down and said that compassion, not this legalistic “purity code,” is the most important thing.  Compassion is the essence of holiness, not purity.

I would say this presents us with an enormous invitation and an enormous challenge.  Many of us, I can imagine, may have internalized certain “purity codes” about who’s in and who’s out.  And most of us – whether we fancy ourselves as conservatives or liberals, as evan­gelicals or as catholics, republicans or democrats; whether we are a man or woman, gay or straight, young or old, of African or Asian or Hispanic or Anglo descent – probably most of us are more naturally drawn to those whom we perceive to be most like us: those who think like us, behave like us, and look like us.  And some days we might be tempted to think that God is much the same (which would be like creating God in our own image).  But Jesus looks with pity and compassion on everyone, saying that there’s room within his wide arms and broken heart for everyone… including even those whom we ourselves might be tempted to think don’t belong, and those who have “fallen from grace.”  There’s no such thing as falling from grace.  We are always caught up in God’s grace.  That’s the point.  Everyone is a child of God.  Even the people we may find to be poor (say, poor examples of anything we find good), even someone whom we may find to be pathetic, or presumptuous, or misguided, or disgusting, even those who reject us, even these people have a place at the table as children of God.

We hear in our gospel lesson for today about the widow who caught Jesus’ attention.  Why?  The poor widow who made an offering of two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.   Why did this widow catch Jesus’ attention, and why has this story been remembered?  This was not an event that was recorded live on CNN; nor was this account something which Jesus himself wrote.  This was a story remembered and told by Jesus, and then remembered and recorded many years later by the gospel writer, Mark.  Why?  It doesn’t have to do with the amount of money the widow shared.  (The copper coins, called lepta, were the smallest coins in circulation, worth almost nothing.)  Nor was this remembered because of the unique experience of Jesus’ meeting up with a widow.  Widows were everywhere, and most of them were poor.  The reason why the Old Testament prophets and the early church kept extolling the needs of widows was because their needs were as great as their numbers.  They were as common as chattel, and often treated the same.  I think this story was told by Jesus and remembered in the scriptures because it is so common; this is an every-person story.  The Hebrew word used to refer to a widow literally means an empty house.  No one home; nowhere to belong.  This is an every-person story.  We have an innate need to belong, to matter, to be a participant in life, to have dignity.  We all do.  With people who live in abject poverty, with nothing to hide behind – no clothes, no cash, no name, no stature, no place where they belong – with people who live in abject poverty, this innate need is all-the-more obvious: to belong, to matter, to be a participant in life, not just an object to be towered over or judged or disdained.  A widow, literally an empty house.

This past week in the news we’ve heard of many people who would understand what it is to come home to an empty house, like a widow’s exposure.  We’ve seen politicians and political appointees and preachers and educators and leaders in industry lose the place where they belonged.  Many people have been exposed.  Whether or not any of us agree with these various people being ousted or outed, I would say there is an invitation for compassion.  For those of us who dare call ourselves followers of Jesus, there is an invitation for compassion, surely not sarcasm.  The etymology of English word ‘sarcasm’ is from the Greek, sarkázein, meaning literally to strip off the flesh.  People who are exposed have already been stripped.  They don’t need our help with that.  Nor more judgment.  They have enough of that, also, and mostly from within their own souls.  They need to be re-clothed.  They need to find their belongings.  They need to be shrouded with compassion, which means to suffer with them.  We suffer with these people – all the people who show up poorly on our poor list – because we could so easily be they.  We are all so similar.  People simply do not wake up some morning and say to themselves, “How can I screw up my life?  How can I make things really, really bad for me and for others?”  Life isn’t like that.  Bad things happen to bad people and good people alike; and even good people are prone to make very bad decisions.  All of this can have terrible, sometimes inescapable repurcutions, like a tsunami of the soul that a person has started but cannot stop.  The theology which Jesus confronted in his own day can still surface in our own day: that people get what they deserve.  I hope not.  I certainly hope not for myself.

If you’re in touch with some sarcasm or cynicism in your own soul toward some person, maybe a mighty person who has fallen or someone who is like an urchin to you, if you find yourself teeming with recreational delight because of the well-deserved suffering of someone in the news, pray for them.  Even if they represent everything you find abhorrent – as if they were your enemy – pray for them.  Pray for them long enough until you can see how much you are like them.  You really are.  Pray for them until you can understand what must be their suffering, which is compassion.  Pray for them long enough until you are ready to receive them when they come knocking at your door, exposed and desperate, asking for your help.  We bear Jesus Christ to this world.  The clearest and prevailing reason why Jesus did what he did and said what he said was because of his compassion for others, his tender loving mercy.  Pray for the people whom you could be glad you are not like.  Pray for them until you are ready to receive them knocking at the door of your heart.  Judge them by the standards God will hold up for you.  Judge them… in need of God’s love, as much as you.  St. John of the Cross, the 16th century Spanish mystic, says, “at the end of our life, we will be judged by love.”

Matthew 14:14.

Matthew 9:36, compare Mk 6:34.

Mark 1:41.

Matthew 20:34.

Mark 5:42-43; Mark 8:2f.

Mark 12:41-44; Luke 7:13.

See Mark 5:36; 6:50; Matthew 6:25-34; Mark 4:40; Luke 10:41.

Luke 10:33.

Luke 15:20.

A number of examples excerpted from Jesus Before Christianity, by Albert Nolan. (Orbis Books, 1994);  p. 43.

Insight about “pecking order,” purity codes, and compassion drawn from Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, by Marcus J. Borg.  (Harper Collins, 1994); pp. 50-55ff.

See Luke 11:42 and Matthew 23:23.

See Dirt, Greed & Sex, by L. William Countryman. (Fortress Press, 1990); pp. 83-84.  See also pp. 16, 22, 39-44, 77, 91-92, 243-244.

St. John of the Cross (1542-1591) a Spanish mystic and the Founder (with St. Teresa) of the Discalced Carmelites.

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  1. William shauver on July 31, 2017 at 09:40

    Thank you someday when I can get out of this wheelchair and meet our father I will always remember your kindness

  2. Rhode on July 31, 2017 at 08:24

    This message written in 2006 is what I need to read everyday in 2017.
    Jesus deliver me from wanting to be right more than wanting to love.

  3. Jane Goldring on October 30, 2016 at 11:00

    Thanks Curtis for that powerful message. I think when you come from a large family you help one another when they need it. I certainly learned it when John passed away. I guess i was fortunate to be brought up in a Christian Home. As my nephew said when I had to move John twice, he phoned and wanted to know if i had a mover yet, i said i phoned yesterday and booked one. David said Aunt Jane cancel it, Peter, David and one of our boys will do it. That is what families are for. Things like that make you realize how fortunate i am to come from a family like that. Also i was so fortunate to have Jonathan come over and give me a hand. Those are things you do not forget. Our Lord expressed such compassion as he was aware of his mission on earth. When you help someone in need you always receive back what you give.

    • Christina on July 31, 2017 at 09:03

      When my John was in hospital for ten months before he died, several neighbours would say ‘If there’s anything I can do, let me know.’ But one friend, said, ‘WHAT can I do.’ She and her husband were so good to me – I don’t know how I would have coped (not having a large family) with selling the house, etc. without their help and support.
      Re-reading Br. Curtis’s sermon, I wonder if Jesus’s sense of compassion was enhanced by his own birth and upbringing. It would never be forgotten that he was born out of wedlock and perhaps he, and Mary were reminded time and again of this over the years. Christina

  4. Kathleen Stansfield on October 30, 2016 at 05:09

    Which of us is pure? For all have fallen short.
    But we can all feel compassion for we are all linked by our humanity We cannot always end the suffering butin sharing we help to ease it and give hope

  5. Hilda on January 23, 2016 at 16:58

    It is my belief that Jesus expressed such compassion because he was aware of his mission on earth which was to express God’s eternal unfailing compassionate love for His creation. In addition Jesus was aware of his identity in God and his oneness with humanity past present and future..

  6. george on January 23, 2016 at 14:07

    speaking of compassion, we ought to rescue the refugees from the Middle East. Every house of worship in the US should adopt a family. The leaders each religious organization should come together and cooperate to create the rescue program. Any refugee who wishes to come live with us here in the US should be welcomed. Each house of worship would see to their well- being

  7. Michael on January 23, 2016 at 08:31

    Suffereing is suffering. The needs may differ, but God still urges us to offer compassion and understanding. It’s not complicated just uncomfortable at times

  8. George Wiley on February 11, 2014 at 08:50

    Thank you once again, Fr. Almquist, for the nourishing teachings you give. I worry about a wide-spread Christian tendency to equate Judaism with legalism. This outlook doesn’t at all square with the Jewish people I know. Did the NT writers, in the heat of controversy, perhaps inaccurately paint Jewish folks as villains? In any case, I’m grateful for your faith and your gift of expressing it so well.

    • ros on November 1, 2016 at 04:55

      It is good to remember that the jews portrayed in Christian scripture are chosen to be pointedly in contrast to the christians in the story. And I do wish to state that the Judaism I grew up with was completely about ethics, that every moment is an ethical decision to be kind and caring to others, to stand up against injustice, and in general to do what what can to make the world a better place. Jews do not worry about worshipping God, or even about whether one believes in God (belief can come or go). What matters is one’s actions in the world. there is a wonderful book, meant for children, called “A Still Small Voice”. It is worth reading. thank you for your time.

  9. Maureen Doyle on May 20, 2013 at 18:07

    What a wonderful discussion!
    As my life has progressed, I have seen this phenomenon from both sides. Cane, limp, uneven facial features. These have gained me entrance to a club of kind-hearted people who see me like themselves. One refused to allow me to donate to her cup. She let me know that we are too much alike.
    It also shows me my attempts to distance myself from their “impurity.”
    Some tweens threw a plastic bottle at me as I walked along one day. I realized that they took me for a “bag lady.” I both felt indignant on behalf of all bag ladies and reassured myself that I really didn’t belong to that group. I had an apartment, and the bags were from a shopping trip, and..and…and…. That I immediately sought distance from that group that messed up my image of myself as one who believes that being homeless doesn’t mean a person is kind, unkind, interesting conversationalist, thought-challenged, verbose, talented, untalented.
    When I retold the story, most hearers, instead of wishing that the boys’ parents could know that had happened from their back seat to explain that to them, reassured me that I certainly didn’t “look like a bag lady.”
    Besdes my physical difficulties, I suffer from Major Depression. Having mental-health challenges has let me be open to conversations with the most fascinating individuals. My having hearing difficulties helps other hearing-impaired individuals attempt conversations with me.
    Many of my more-stimulating conversations take place on the handicap-transit the RIDE. Politics, theology, psychology, meditation-techniques. It can be fascinating.
    I grieve that before my falls from health, I could not have been this open. Now when I hear my inner-voice saying, “at least I’m not like that person,” I try to correct myself and try to push into my brain that I am. We are all God’s beloved children.

    • Leslie on October 30, 2016 at 05:28

      Thank you for sharing your “I am not a bag lady” indignation! That helped me understand my complicity.

  10. Pam on May 18, 2013 at 09:25

    What a powerful message!

  11. Bob on May 18, 2013 at 09:16

    How about those people whose selfishness vastly affects others who have absolutely no wish for in fact disdain and laugh at your notions of compassion – the 1%. Compassion for them – surely we are praying for justice then not mercy?

    • ros on October 30, 2016 at 11:32

      perhaps it is good to remember, that if one is either middle-class or working class in the US, compared to the rest of the world, we are also the 1%. And the wealthy in the U.S. do not necessarily disdain those who have less any more than we who are middle class disdain those who are homeless.

  12. Rick Porter on May 18, 2013 at 08:06

    Curtis, once again you have taken a word that usually connotes a simple concept, i.e. compassion = be nice to those who suffer or have less than us, and shown it to be such a wonderfully loving concept and an action word, not a feeling. Jesus acted out of compassion and in a compassionate manner. Just as He is God and sees all, He has given each of us the grace to recognize that each of our brothers and sisters are in need of His compassionate love, whether they look like it on the outside or acknowledge it themselves. For me, it has often been easier to have compassion for those who the world labors unfortunate than to show compassion for those who have been given more than me, in either physical or intellectual gifts. We are all children of God and whether I am feeling pity for someone or am jealous or cynical about someone with more prestige or possessions than me, I am off of the track. Each of them is a brother or sister in need of and deserving of all of the love the Lord has given me. I am to be the same compassionate person to everyone just as Jesus was consistently loving and compassionate to everyone. Thank you foe the insight.

  13. Anders on May 18, 2013 at 07:26

    I am becoming increasingly aware of the “purity” laws of our US society, and how I benefit them as a given without even needing to buy in to them. Jesus could just as well be saying “Beware of the white males, who like to drive around in shiny cars with a spring in their step, knowing their plastic cards will open the doors they want opened. They demand an irrational share of society’s wealth because they can, leaving behind scraps rather than legacies for society and the next generations.”

    I hear Jesus calling, making himself known from the detritus of my charmed American white guy existence. As I try to convince myself and others I don’t have it so easy, I hear that yes I do have it easy just because I don’t have to fight against it all like they do. Their struggles have made them stronger and wiser, and it is I who feel unworthy. My my teachers deemed less worthy by society remind me “Yes, I am already blessed. We all are.” Somehow in my gratitude and unworthiness I am made worthy.

    My task is now to show up and listen to others. Friedrich Nietzsche had a point when he said “Absolute certainty brings terror”. Let us who are favored in our society’s purity caste recognize our certainty does not serve us or the world well. Let us learn from the disenchanted.

  14. Ruth West on October 14, 2012 at 21:03

    Bro. Curtis,
    This sermon is truly food for thought. Thank you for jarring my conscience.
    I am also reminded, however, that Jesus did not justify sin. He called it as
    he saw it, even though his arms were always wide open in loving acceptance for the vilest of us. I agree that we need to pray for all, those we
    like and those we don’t like or those with whom we disagree. In a counseling session once, my penance was to pray every day for the person who had wronged me plus memorizing I Cor. 13. It seemed that person changed for the better, when, deep down, I knew it was I who had changed.
    I need the message of your sermon. I desire to be more compassionate.
    Please remember me in your prayers. Thank you. REW

  15. Melanie Zybala on October 13, 2012 at 14:28

    Thank you for this reflection One criticism, however: It is typical for Christian writers to portray the Jewish religious system of Jesus’ time as laden with rules and rigid protocols, carried out by punitive leaders, i.e.”scribes and Pharisees.”
    However, some important research indicates that Judaism then was not terribly rigid or punitive, and that the Pharisees were actually good and faithful Jews who were often reformers.

    • ros on October 30, 2016 at 11:26

      thank you for your comment. Antisemitism in the church is often denied or overlooked or dismissed as not important. 1500 years of persecution of jews by christians does not disappear and should not be dismissed.

  16. Maureen Doyle on October 13, 2012 at 10:16

    Thank you for the well-timed and much-needed confirmation of my worth after rejection by my stepmother as my father lay dying. And for the reminder to pray for her-also a child of God.

  17. DLa Rue on October 13, 2012 at 08:36

    Thanks for the phrase “recreational delight” at another’s suffering. Having been on the receiving end of it, it definitely behooves me to set guard within my soul that I do not indulge in it as well.

  18. Alison on October 13, 2012 at 06:24

    One of the greatest personal miracles I have experienced is the process of praying for someone that I have been in discord with. Lighting a candle and regular prayer has dispelled animosity and replaced it with friendship and understanding. I am still amazed, amused and grateful. Thank you, Brother Curtis, for your thoughts on judgement, forgiveness and compassion. I will carry them with me.

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