The contrast in kings is quite apparent. Even though Pilate is really not a king by title, he plays the role of one with his earthly power and authority. If he commands a Roman soldier to carry out an order, the order will be carried out without discussion or any level of dissenting.
Pilate takes the form of a king in that many are subject to him. He dresses with the sharpest of uniforms. He engages in the most sumptuous meals; every day was Thanksgiving for Pontius Pilate. Or, every day was Wright’s Chicken Farm for him. He has the best attendants in the land who carry out his every wish, military or otherwise. He has the strongest and most handsome horse; it’s his BMW in the 1st century. All his needs are cared for because of who he is. He acts like a king, even though he’s only a governor.
And then there’s his counterpart. His opposite. His alter-ego. He stands there before this mere mortal of a man who thinks he’s in control of the unfolding situation. Ever think you had a situation under control, only to have it all of a sudden get away from you? Our health is one of those things that can do this to us. Up and about one day; lying flat the next day.
But Pilate thinks he’s in control of Jesus. He doesn’t care much about Jesus’ legions of angels. He’s got legions of Roman soldiers with spears. He looks at Jesus and sees a very common man, a very ordinary looking Jew who stands before his majesty with disheveled hair, dirty clothes – like he was born in a manger or something – a scraggly beard that needs a barber. All in all, not much to look at. Pilate must have looked at Jesus and wondered to himself, “Why are these crazy people labeling him the King of the Jews? Is this the best they can do for a king? Look at him! No wonder why we own them! No wonder why they’re subject to us powerful Romans! Look at this guy! If he’s a king then I’m King Kong! If he’s a king, then he’s got one very odd kingdom.”
As we know, appearances are not always spot on. Appearances, like mirrors, can be quite deceiving, with objects being much closer than they appear. God, the Son of God, the Word made flesh, the Lord of Lords, and the King of the Universe was standing right before Pilate, up close and very personal, and the Roman Procurator saw a weak human being. Appearances can be deceptive. This scene is very similar in outlook to any Catholic who receives the Body of Christ and sees just a piece of bread. It took faith for Pilate to see who was really before him, in the grasp of his hands. Faith which he did not possess. It takes faith to see beyond the elements of bread to see the living God right before us.
My brothers and sisters in the Lord, we worship and praise a King who is not much to look at in the eyes of the world. Is that okay with you? A King who is spit on. A King who is challenged in his teachings and his ways passed on and preserved in his Church. A King who is laughed at and put off by the so-called powerful and intelligent among us. Is it okay with you to praise and worship a King whose earthly banquet needs a hidden Upper Room with only 12 certain associates in attendance. A King who is persecuted and crucified. Let’s face the facts; our King is not much to look at physically. He would not be invited to participate in a male model contest. He would never be pictured in a Christmas catalog for JC Penny or LL Bean. He would need to get a haircut and comb his hair for once. He’s a King who draws no attention to himself, except to look at him and say, “This guy needs to get his act together!” Yet, he’s the King of the Universe. How does he pull that off?
To see the truest appearance of the common looking man standing before the mighty and powerful Pontius Pilate, we must go internal, where the Spirit of God dwells. We must go into the inner sanctum of his Person. When we do, what we find there are a few things that make him more appealing. We find that there is the heart of a Savior filled with mercy and compassion for our sins. A heart that can love even the fool who is asking him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
What we discover in the deepest recesses of this Divine man standing before Pilate is our gift of Redemption. His redeeming power and free gift of grace cannot be seen in his disheveled hair and dirty, sweaty clothes.
What we learn from the mind of the so-called King of the Jews who is really the King of the Universe is his perfect knowledge. Perfection that reveals his unconditional love for us.
What we see in his Heart once again is sacrifice. Not the fasting type of sacrifice, although he fasted for 40 days at one time, matching the Guinness Book of World Records set by Moses centuries before. And not the sharing of a meal type of sacrifice. In the King’s heart we see the type of sacrifice that has the power to right all the wrongs since Adam & Eve. That’s a lot of wrongs. But his sacrifice not only rights the wrongs of our actions and choices, but also the wrongest of all wrongs, death itself. I sacrifice a meal to gain some good health for a short time; he sacrifices life for death for our eternal benefit.
And, what we find in our search inside this common-looking King, is obedience. His obedience to his Father, which is played out right there before Pilate, is what seals his title, “King of the Universe.” Without obedience, he would be as common on the inside as much as he was on the outside. The same applies to us. Without obedience to Christ and his teachings, a Christian cannot succeed in our mission. Without Jesus being obedient, we would have no Savior to follow.
Search for Christ on his inside. Know the real Jesus Christ, unlike Pilate who knew nothing about our Lord. Worship him because of his internal beauty, where we find the King of the Universe.
I’ve often wondered if St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI had a contest to determine who was the smarter Pope, if they had like a Pope Jeopardy against each other, who would win? I would have to give the edge to the German Pope over the Polish Pope.
The Polish Pope, St. John Paul II, may he RIP, was brilliant beyond words. His many encyclicals, his homilies, and writings on the Theology of the Body over the course of 26-plus years are words that will be dissected by Church minds for centuries to come. I predict he will one day be named a Doctor of the Church, a title held by very few Saints, as a result of his prolific writings. And that his common sense combined with a most gifted mind will be unmatched with Popes for years to come.
But that recent German Pope, Benedict XVI; he’s like a walking encyclopedia of the Catholic Church. Brilliant beyond brilliant. An exciting religious mind who understands the complex issues of everyday life with the talent to write about them in ways that would make a person shake their head and ask, “What is he saying here?” Or, his ability to simplify issues so that the average person without a PHD in theology can understand him. He could do both.
I remember the Abbot up at the Spencer Abbey saying one time in a talk he gave to the priests of Worcester. He mentioned the time that Pope Benedict was about to give a homily during Mass, and no one could find his homily. It was probably left in the sacristy at St. Peter’s Basilica, underneath the vestment of a priest from Worcester maybe. And the Abbot basically said, “This is going to be fun. He now needs to talk off the top of his head, without notes,” unlike yours truly. Meaning, he was going to speak directly from the heart, from his knowledge of the faith. And when that happens, you never know what’s going to come out.
As much as those two most recent Popes, along with our present Pope Francis, no intellectual slouch himself, as well as they know the faith and are able to explain it, defend it, and preserve it, whether in terms understood or not, the one thing they never knew, or know, and never will, is the hour and day of Jesus’ return. They had and they have no clue, no idea, no inkling, no reasonable guess based on the teachings of the faith in Scripture or the Church’s living Tradition, or otherwise, when our Lord’s Second Coming will happen. And not only that, they also have no idea as to what it’s going to look like! Meaning, what will be the physical vision for those who are awake, for those who are alive.
We know that those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, as the author of the Book of Daniel writes and we heard in today’s 1st reading. They shall awake to receive their judgment. And according to the Old Testament author, some shall live forever, while others shall be an everlasting horror and disgrace. A most politically incorrect view of salvation.
But for those who are awake, like us right now, what will Jesus’ return look like when it happens, for certainly it will happen? Will it happen in the twinkling of an eye, an image St, Paul uses in chapter 15 of 1st Corinthians, where we no chance to contemplate it while it’s happening? Will it be a gradual return in steps, where God will cause visible things to happen that are meant to call people’s attention to the approaching end of time, for certainly it will happen? And it will happen whether we believe it personally or not. Any individual lack of belief has no power to stop Jesus’ return.
Well, Jesus gets very colorful and dramatic in the Gospel as to what his return is going to look like, even though he himself has no idea when it’s going to happen. I think of when Jesus emptied himself from heaven to become the Word made flesh, the instructions from the Father to the Son, just prior to his conception in the womb of Mary, went something like this: “Son, when you talk to them about your second visit, this is what it’s going to look like, but I’m not going to tell you when it’s going to happen.”
The sun will be darkened, the moon will not give its light, the stars will fall from the sky, the powers in the heavens will be shaken. And then, the Son of Man will be seen coming in the clouds, with great power and glory. What’s that going to look like? St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI cannot answer that one, as well as Pope Francis. They would stumble on their words if they tried. And then the angels will go out and gather the elect from the four winds. You may want to be nice to your guardian angel.
This language Jesus uses for his return is fearful language. It scares people. I’m not against scaring people if it calls them back to the practice of their faith instead of living for this passing world only. Or if it calls them to conversion. If that’s what it takes, then that’s a good, divine scare with a very good result.
But Jesus’ language on the surface is dramatic, as it should be. Because our Lord’s return, whenever it happens, will be dramatic beyond words. Jesus can use words to explain to us some scientific and astrological events that will precede his second visit. He can tell us things about the sun, the moon, and the stars. But even his description of his return does not do justice to the event itself. And what’s more, he doesn’t even know when it will happen. Only the Father knows.
So, what should our reaction be to this Gospel that is so far beyond our control? First, keep practicing your faith in Jesus Christ, and don’t ever let it slip away from your heart. Persevere and be steadfast in your faith. Second, “Be not afraid.” Whatever Jesus’ return looks like, know that our Lord’s Second Coming is an act of love. If I’m wrong on that, which I don’t think I am, you can let me know in Purgatory.
And third, because we don’t know when our Lord is coming back to those who are awake and those who sleep in the dust of the earth, we concern ourselves with right now, because the Kingdom of God has already begun. By taking care of the “right now” stuff; family, friends, strangers, the poor…we are made ready for our Lord’s return.
Not that I would know, but I would think it’s not very easy being a widow. When a woman becomes a widow, she has lost, first and foremost, the companionship of her husband. In many relationships, she has lost her best friend.
Then, depending upon the makeup and character of their unique relationship, she has also lost, in the death of her husband, a certain amount of support. The support can be financial, emotional, spiritual, the support of listening, advice that was offered, strength, and the capacity to lean on someone you would trust with your life. That’s an awful lot to lose in the death of one person. And there’s probably more.
The readings proclaimed this Sunday highlight the lives of two widows, and what it looks like to be a widow in Old Testament times as well as in the time of Jesus. And, it’s not a pretty picture.
In the 1st reading from the 1st Book of Kings, the widow of Zaraphaeth that Elijah comes to is so destitute that she’s already convinced herself that after she makes this final meal, she and her son are both going to die. Why? Because of the famine and drought in the land, causing her flour jug and oil to run empty. The son of the widow in this story must be very young, most likely a child, totally dependent upon his mother, because he’s not helping his widowed mother. He’s not helping her gather wood; he’s not out searching for other sources of food; he’s not a hunter; he doesn’t work at Papa John’s with the option of bringing home a pizza. He’s probably a child, so the widow in the only adult is the house. She’s a single mother, and we know that life for single mother is anything but a dozen roses.
In the Gospel, we have another widow who is embarrassingly poor and destitute, financially speaking. She has next to nothing. While others are putting loads of money into the temple treasury, filling up the coffers of their religious leaders, she tosses in a couple coins. An amount that would not allow a religious leader to buy half a robe for himself. But there she is, not self-conscious about her tiny amount when compared to the others. It’s obvious from the story that this widow owns the clothes on her back and not much else, if anything.
So, what do these two widows who are poor and destitute, one from centuries before Christ and the other at the time of Jesus, what do they offer us in the 21st century? Why does the Church even bother with these two events, these two widows, and make them the center of attention for Sunday Mass?
First, the widow who welcomes the great Prophet Elijah into her home, Elijah who flew off to heaven in a flaming chariot, she teaches us the timeless truth of perseverance. Despite the death of her husband, who apparently was a means of much support for her and her son, she keeps on keeping on. How do we know this? Because she takes her life and the life of her son, in imitation of Christ, right down to their last supper. As long as there is sustenance to chew on and to swallow, the gift of their lives will continue. Death will not be given into until all the food is baked and consumed, and all the oil dried up. She doesn’t give up on her life or the life of her son. Instead, it’s the elements that give up on the widow and the child. That’s what famine and drought do. The potential growth contained within the earth gives up on those who enjoy its bounty.
This makes her Christ-like. Her perseverance makes her Christ-like, as does our perseverance. Because Jesus did not hand his life over until his hour had arrived. And even then, he took the last bread he would enjoy in this world, and water with some wine, and made a perpetual memorial out of it, so that the jar of the Eucharist will never go empty for us.
For Jesus, prior to his hour arriving, there were many threats against him, occasions of potential violence against him, and countless times when our Lord was exasperated with his chosen disciples, as well as those whose hearts were closed to his presence and words. Despite all this, he took his life to the very end, as far as it could go. He didn’t seek out a physician who would assist him in an act of suicide. He and the widow of Zaraphaeth persevered, as are we too also.
And the Gospel widow, the one who Jesus praises and lifts to stardom. She also has an important message for 21st century Christians. It’s the age-old message of trust. The message of trusting in the Lord at all times.
The obvious and first message of this poor and destitute widow on the surface is the virtue of generosity. Her generous nature is noticed by Jesus, who in turn beckons his disciples to take notice. I don’t speak of the part of the story that Jesus openly points out because it’s there for all of us to see. Also, because my experience at Immaculate Conception for 5-1/2 years now is that the people of this Parish are very generous. I would be preaching to the choir if I preached on the widow’s generosity.
Instead, she’s a widow of the deepest and most difficult form of trust. By placing her last two coins in the temple treasury, she’s left with nothing to purchase the basic needs for her life. As we heard in last week’s Gospel on All Saints Day, appropriately enough, she’s poor in spirit. Once those coin go “clink, clink,” down into the treasury box, the only thing she’s left with is her dependence upon God. The only possible way this widow can let go of those two coins is to trust that God will provide for her daily bread through the lives of other people. Her dropping the coins in the treasury is the same as her praying, “Give us this day our daily bread,” and trusting those words of prayer.
With the material wealth many of us have, do we trust God on such a deep level as the temple widow? Or, does our material wealth lessen our dependence and trust upon God, which it has the great potential to do?
Perseverance and trust. Those two widows may not have much by way of material goods. But they do have much to share with us by way of spiritual goods. Even here in the 21st century.