St Eugene’s Cathedral
Francis Street, Derry
BT48 9AP | Tel: 028 7126 2302
In the last weeks we have heard about Jesus paying attention to the poor blind beggar – and the instruction to love God and our neighbour. Today, as the news media are full of content regarding the major environmental conference in Glasgow, in this Gospel passage we meet an unnamed apparently insignificant poor widow whom Jesus points out. As we struggle to develop a distinctively Christian theology about care for the environment, what might we learn?
Firstly, the opening reading about the prophet Elijah and the poor widow of Sidon has a context. Because of bad leadership from King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, a drought and famine had descended on the country. That is why both Elijah and the widow are in such dire straits. And Elijah, the prophet, is being hunted because he is saying uncomfortable truths about the king. When powerful leaders make selfish decisions, it is mainly the little people who suffer. When prophetic voices criticise the powerful, every attempt will be made to silence them. If the Church ever loses its prophetic voice on behalf of those on the margins, it loses a core element of the Gospel message. In the Old Testament, the prophets spoke awkward truths into the world of power, politics and religion. Jesus upset both civil and religious leaders with subversive teachings and actions. But the prophet is never merely an angry critical voice. It is easy to be angry and loud. Jesus, on the other hand, was always proposing and living a better way, never just criticising other people. Prophets are happy complainers. The Spirit of God gives them a confident restlessness which enables them to sketch out the future and not merely damn the past. They generate hope and community, not merely resentment and division. It is easy enough to be angry about what somebody else is doing in the rain forests on the other side of the world. It is easy to be upset about the orangutans and the snow leopards. But we can fail to notice the little ones in our towns and cities who are being crushed by the system and circumstances. The great founders of religious congregations and movements sacrificed themselves to bring people in from the cold. Prophets are motivated by generous love that costs a lot - and not merely by comfortable anger that costs little.
Secondly, Jesus is critical of the religious leaders of his time. Hypocrites are actors. They know the right words to speak but use them to serve themselves and not God's mission. Jesus sought to live his own life with integrity, being consistent in love of God and love of neighbour, whatever the cost to himself. That is the context for his comments on the generous widow. She is acting with integrity. She, unlike the scribes, does not seek to be greeted publicly or get the top places at banquets. She believes that what is done in secret is seen by God. She does her little bit and trusts that what is done in love has enormous value.
The Church in this country faces many challenges. For all sorts of reasons, our integrity is challenged – and there is no shortage of material with which to question whether, deep down, we are more like the little widow or the showy scribes. The COP26 conference poses us with big questions. Do we simply jump on slogan-led bandwagons, or do we have a distinctive prophetic voice? The turbo-charged economic system is not just damaging the equilibrium of nature, but it is also crushing millions of little people. Can we discover a language that defends not just the environment but also the tens of thousands of children who die each day of preventable diseases and the ten million who are prevented from being born each year? Unless we have a distinctive grace-filled voice, we are merely parroting the fears and anger of others, not the grace of Jesus.
Thirdly, the poor widow in the Gospel lives her life with a belief in the transcendent. Her generosity is motivated by a belief that there is a God who can make sense of the mess that we humans have created. Our second reading speaks of Jesus who sacrifices himself to destroy the power of sin. Our weekly attendance at the celebration of the Mass invites us to be part of the divine initiative which will heal the face of the earth that has been so scarred by sin and greed. We are challenged the teachings of scripture, we dare to call God 'Our Father' and, through Communion, we join in the power of the Christ's self-giving on Calvary. In the face of the self-indulgent, greedy King Ahab, Elijah became a hunted and unwelcome prophet. In the face of an economic model that suits the rich and powerful – whatever the cost to the little ones – Jesus invites us to let divine wisdom, generosity and love shine through our simple lives. In this diocese, a group of dedicated and passionate parishioners have been working on a diocesan strategy to encourage us all to live simply so that others can simply live. We hope to publish that soon. It will mean cutting out waste so that both human society and nature can live in a life-giving harmony. In the Garden of Eden, human pig-headedness destroyed that harmony. We who share each week in the memorial of Christ's sacrifice are called to model what grace-filled relationships can look like. A prophetic church will be both an inspiration to the hurting and the idealistic - and a threat to the defensive and powerful. That is where the future lies for Christ's followers.
Today's readings make it clear that there is no opposition between love of God and love of neighbour, between Christian faith and concern for the environment. Jesus came to restore an equilibrium to the relationship between us and the God who created the world as good and human beings as very good. The prophetic Christian voice is always full of hope – and seeks to walk the walk and not just talk the talk. Jesus tells us that the Cross can save us from ourselves and from the dungeon of our earthbound worldview. Before the mystery of Calvary, Jesus invites us to see the reality of what we are doing, judge what we can do in the circumstances that we face – and then act with a generosity that is inspired by love of God and love of neighbour. There are difficult decisions to be made in Glasgow – and in every one of our parishes. The power to take major decisions flows from the sacrament of Christ's death – and begins today, here and now. The poor widow would confirm that for us.
+ Donal McKeown