In today’s Gospel we discover that Jesus had sharp hearing but to understand how we know this we must understand where he was standing.
Jesus is in the temple area. It was a series of courtyards. The first and largest was the courtyard of the gentiles. This did not mean that only gentiles could use it but that everyone including gentiles could. The next was the court of the women which again was not just for women but for all Jews. The spaces narrowed further with a court for just Jewish men, then priests and finally the Holy of Holys which only the High Preist could enter once a year at Yom Kippur. The temple was huge and tremendously expensive to maintain. One revenue source was donations from visitors. The temple authorities were very shrewd. First, as they used coins, they made the collection boxes from metal. More and larger coins made more noise and caused more attention to be paid to the donor. They were in fact called the trumpets. Also, there were twelve of them, each one for a different purpose, from care of the gold of the temple to doweries for the daughters of poor priestly families. A person could donate to several of them, and everyone would hear their generosity. Truly getting a bang for their buck. And most importantly they were placed in the court of the women so women could donate as well.
This is where Jesus has placed himself. He sees the rich come forward and hears the conspicuous noise they made putting their large coins perhaps in several trumpets. They were aware of who they were and expected everyone to notice and admire.
Jesus next sees a poor widow. She put in a pittance. The coin has been called the widow’s mite and is so small that it made little noise. Jesus would barely have heard it but would have heard the difference loud and clear from the rich and famous. Jesus solemnly called the disciples to him and told them “Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury.” (Mk 12:43) She gave less financially but she gave all humanly.
As the chief parish fund raiser, I would like to say that the meaning of this passage is to give until it hurts but it does not mean this at least in a financial sense. As we have seen with Mark physical things reveal a spiritual reality. A few weeks ago, Jesus gave physical sight to the blind Bartimaeus but also gave him spiritual sight so he could follow him along the way. This poor widow gave her earthly life away but will receive eternal life in return.
This is not prudent and perhaps should not be imitated but it should be admired, it shows divine recklessness. Look at Jesus. He has gone to Jerusalem to die; he is now about the leave the temple and this woman is the last person he meets. She is an image of him, he is as reckless as she is, he too will give himself away. Even his closest disciples do not get it, they are not yet saints. They will eventually understand. Tradition tells us that they will give their lives as martyrs, the ultimate learning experience. They will become as reckless as Jesus and the widow. That is the common biography of the saints. Even the most unexpected ones.
Our patron, Charles Borromeo, whose feast we celebrate today was an unexpected saint. He was born in 1538 to an ancient noble family in northern Italy. He was destined for the Church and at the age of 12, as was not uncommon at the time, he was given the income from a rich monastery. He turned over most of the income to the poor, which was most uncommon.
Again, as was not uncommon, when his uncle was elected pope Charles was quickly made cardinal-nephew. This is as suspicious as it sounds as it came with great authority and power. If he were a cautious man, he could have had a very comfortable life and not an unproductive one. But he had the recklessness of a saint and having been made the bishop of his native Milan, to the surprise of everyone, resigned his other positions and went to live in Milan.
He was he first Bishop of Milan to physically reside there for almost 80 years and corruption was as wide and deep as an ocean. He was tireless in reform beginning with the education of clergy and laity. Indeed, he is responsible for both the seminaries for priests and religious education for parishes.
For these efforts he received the reward of the true reformer; priests from the, ironically named Brothers of Humility, tried to kill him. Most impressively he not only stayed in Milan during a brutal plague but organized relief efforts both physical and spiritual for those who had to remain. He provided food for over 60,000 people a day but also arranged for Mass to be said outside of church buildings for the people’s safety. We see the former on the mural on my left and the latter in the stained glass above me.
St Charles could have lived the life of a rich if pious aristocratic Churchman but instead gave his life to Christ and his people. He had more in common with the poor widow than with his fellow cardinals.
He died over 5 centuries ago, but I pray we have the same mind and heart. Covid may not have been a plague in the full sense of the word but was disruptive and we do not know what and how permanent the changes will be. Also, we have the call of Pope Francis to follow the Spirit to a more listening church through the synod. We will need the organizational ability of St Charles particularly in education but to be the saints that are needed for this time and place we must be as reckless as well.