Archive for new york times magazine

Missing the Point of the Widow’s Mite

Posted in Social Justice, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on November 11, 2012 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Today’s Gospel from Mark is a bit more complicated than most people might initially think. The story about the “widow’s mite,” when Jesus and his disciples sit near the Temple and see an impoverished widow put in two coins that in and of themselves are not worth much, but presumably represent a significant portion of the woman’s resources, presents us with a comment from Jesus that has been largely interpreted in one particular way.  Jesus responds to this scene with the line: “Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.” A classic reading of this remark has rendered the widow a hero, someone worth emulating, a selfless giver who gives until it hurts, and so on. However, this may not be what Jesus is really getting at in this passage.

We cannot read the story about the widow’s offering without taking into consideration the few verses that immediately precede this text.

In the course of his teaching Jesus said to the crowds,
“Beware of the scribes, who like to go around in long robes
and accept greetings in the marketplaces,
seats of honor in synagogues,
and places of honor at banquets.
They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext
recite lengthy prayers.
They will receive a very severe condemnation.”

Prior to witnessing the widow’s offering, Jesus had been teaching his disciples about some systems of social inequity, of imbalance in the religious, political, and social structures of his day. This is not simply to contrast the wealthy with the poor, those who have a “surplus of wealth” from which they offer their gifts at the Temple versus those who have only their subsistence from which to draw. No, Jesus is painting a much starker picture that is, in effect, more about the wealthy scribes than it is about the poor, destitute widow.

I would venture to say that if you think that this Gospel passage is about the widow or about how honorable the poor are for being generous, you’re missing the point.

The Gospel passage for this Sunday in full (Mark 12:38-44) is a two-parter. In Act I (to borrow the theatrical division popular with NPR’s This American Life) we see a religious and political system that is run by a few wealthy and powerful individuals in the culture. These are the entrepreneurs of the religious establishment, who “as a pretext” to fleecing the poor and the vulnerable “recite lengthy prayers” in show of their religious commitments and to paint the financial exchange as “of God.”

These scribes about which Jesus warns the disciples to be wary use their social location, power, and wealth only for themselves. Sure, Jesus points out, they “give to the church” (to use a modern phrase), but they do so only in the most superficial and painless way. Their real concern is themselves, maintaining their wealth, and shoring up their hegemony at the expense of the poorest and most vulnerable of their time.

Jesus clearly condemns this.

Then we get Act II. Here Jesus and the disciples are hanging out across from the Temple treasury, not necessarily on purpose, but they happen to be there and happen to do a little “people watching.” They see what’s going on, who is offering what. And, as if by chance or coincidence, a poor widow (which was, in truth, the only type of widow, because they were often counted among the poorest, most vulnerable, and voiceless in first-century palestinian society — they have no security, no claim on property, no protection, and little resources) comes and puts in a sum that represents all that she has.

This is not an opportunity to praise the widow, but a chance to lament the disgusting injustice that creates the condition for this scene. The widow’s offering is an illustration of what Jesus was just talking about — the religious, political, and social establishment has systematically corrupted her way of thinking such that she apparently feels compelled to give far beyond what likely hurts her and anyone, say children, that might depend on her.

The real question that lies beneath this Sunday’s Gospel is: What is the reason that someone who has nothing feels compelled to give from that lack to the Temple (or church or charity or whatever)? Who seeks to benefit from this exchange? We know who certainly stands to lose.

A reading of Jesus’s comments that appears to hold the widow up on a pedestal is, I believe, a perpetuation of this injustice that inflicted the widow of Jesus’s time and continues to affect the poor and vulnerable in our day.

A few years back, while reflecting on this reading, I wrote about a New York Times Magazine article that highlighted the myth of philanthropy and the “benefits to the poor” of having the super wealthy (“Today’s Parable of the Widow’s Mite“). What this well-researched article revealed was that the super wealthy, the wealthy and ostentatious “scribes” of today, actually give less than those who have middle and lower incomes. Most absurdly, what Jesus observed in his day remains true today — those with the least continue to give more, by percentage of their resources, than the wealthy!

Jesus is not endorsing this behavior, but blatantly naming it for what it is (especially when we read the full text with vv. 38-40 included about the Scribes) and challenging us to see the structures that allow this to continue. What can we do to make society and the our faith communities more equitable? Why do we let this continue to happen such that the poor give until it hurts and the wealthy seem to so often benefit from this self-defeat of the impoverished?

Hopefully this Sunday we don’t miss the point of the widow’s mite, but instead follow Jesus’s line of thinking and make a difference in our world.

Photo: by Amy Pectol

The Irrelevance of Benedict XVI According to Gary Wills

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on October 31, 2010 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Just a brief observation.

Today, during my weekly routine of reading through the NYT Sunday Magazine (for those who prefer to read it segmented online in advance of Sunday’s print edition — I have no sympathy.  I prefer the print version), I noticed that this week’s interview was with famed historian Gary Wills.  Indeed, one of the most prolific american historians of the last fifty years, Wills has often written about his own Catholic faith (most famously, Why Am I Catholic, 2002), while also dabbling in authorial projects related to the Gospels (What Jesus Meant, 2006), the writings of St. Paul (What Paul Meant, 2007) and the life and thought of St. Augustine (several books).

Now, as you well know, the one-page weekly interview in the Times Magazine is hardly substantive.  Instead, it offers a brief glimpse into the musings of a particular public figure at a particular time.  It’s frequently (seemingly) random.  It’s also very “hit-or-miss” in quality and content.

Today’s caught my attention because, in addition to having read 5 of Wills’s books, a very brief two-question exchange was striking.  It appears as follows:

You’re an observant Catholic. What are your thoughts these days about Pope Benedict XVI?
I think he’s irrelevant.

Irrelevant to what?
To religion; to the Gospel.

Powerful and direct stuff!  Some people are going to read this and get all upset about the disrespectful potency of such a remark.  I would challenge such people to take Wills’s response seriously.  As someone who is indeed serious about his faith and has studied both the history of the papacy and the New Testament, I think Wills offers the reader something to ponder.  Is Pope Benedict XVI irrelevant today?  And, if so, how has the pontiff become irrelevant?  Has he made himself such?

While I disagree that any living pope is entirely irrelevant to “religions” or to “the Gospel,”  I do believe that the pontifical foci of recent decades has necessarily marginalized the moral, spiritual and theological voice of the Bishop of Rome.  My sense is that this is what Wills is also noting.  How does one become relevant to religion and the Gospel?  By speaking to a world that cries out for such direction and insight, in light of the Gospel and the message of Christ — not in contrast to it or in variations on a discriminating theme.

I hope that folks who read Wills’s remarks (by the way, the rest of the short interview is also interesting, making this week’s version a “hit” and not necessarily a “miss”) will take to heart an honest observation made and not ready pitchforks and torches to hunt a Christian making an insightful critique.

Come to the Table of Plenty

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on October 10, 2010 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

This week’s New York Times Magazine is the third annual “Food Issue.”  I was delighted to see that Michael Pollan, author of several best-selling books including The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006), contributed to the issue with one of the lead articles. His piece, “The 36-Hour Dinner Party,” chronicles the experience that he and several of his friends (and son) shared while living together, preparing meals and dining over one weekend.  The experience primarily centers on a goat and a cob oven (a earthen oven).  Every meal utilized some portion of one goat that was slaughtered and dressed for the occasion and each part of the meal that required cooking/baking was done with the wood-fired oven of ancient design.

The story, presented like a captain’s log or journal and is well worth reading in its entirety, offered a glimpse into what community-based food production, preparation and consumption looks like.  In an age of McDonalds and Whole Foods, where meals are fabricated wholesale or, what might be otherwise redeemable, comes in the form of commercialized ‘organic’ fare from God-knows-where, the effort to reconnect to the source (a goat farm or locally grown vegetables) and creation of one’s meal results in a bountiful harvest of community and health.

Pollan’s article reminded me a lot of a recent conversation I had with a friend of mine just a few days ago over a delicious Thai meal in Albany, NY.  My friend Steve, a high school classmate, is a dual JD/MSW student who has been developing a social theory that offers a new take on the current crisis of societal fragmentation (whether you realize that it’s a crisis or not).  The way he describes an alternate, non-industrial response to the post-industrial-revolutionary trend of recent centuries finds a kindred spirit in the culinary adventure of Pollan’s 36-Hour Dinner Party.  Steve, as Pollan would likely concur, sees an enormous value in returning to social worldview that prioritizes community, relationship and sustainability.  

Also in this week’s New York Times Magazine, is a very interesting (and, I think, well-written) article about a restaurant in Brooklyn that has become the locus of interreligious and interracial dining and community.  The article, “Keeping it Kosher,” highlights the intersection of good food, an open spirit of respect and civility, and the transformation that a simple dining location can offer to a neighborhood all-too-familiar with division (á la Babette’s Feast).

There is indeed a sense of communion and hints of eucharistic overtones in the possibility such a location offers an increasingly divided world.  As the eucharistia, the meal of thanksgiving, of the early church brought together men and women, Jews and Greeks, free and enslaved in the name of God-Incarnate, again we see the Spirit of God at work in the little meals of openness, dialogue and community.  Perhaps this sort of effort, a location where people of varied cultural and religious traditions can come together, might be a first, and hopefully not the last, supper.

Glenn Beck is the ‘Paris Hilton’ of the Right-Wing

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on October 3, 2010 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

I don’t mean to offend Ms. Hilton, so I apologize if the use of her name and related status in society and popular culture is a bit snarky.  However, upon recent reflection bolstered by this week’s New York Times Magazine cover story, “Being Glenn Beck,” I feel that this kind of parallel is simply fitting.  What do I mean by that?  Put bluntly, Glen Beck has captured the attention of millions of people, not with brilliance deserving the awarding of a Nobel or Pulitzer prize nor with the humanitarian leadership that echos the compassion and justice of a Mother Teresa or Dorothy Day – no, Beck has launched himself (rather successfully) with vacuous entertainment and empty-minded, divisive rhetoric.  He has done with politics what Hilton has done with fashion and sex.

The comparison is not nearly as absurd as one might first believe.  Both Beck and Hilton hold high school diplomas as the highest level of education (technically: Hilton holds a GED).  Hilton’s line of work (if it can be called work) does not seem to require any education, so I suppose she’s off the hook.  Beck, however, is posing as a television and radio “journalist,” a field that requires undergraduate and sometimes postgraduate education.  On his programs he often seeks to “teach,” drawing on props like chalkboards to illustrate his “pedagogical flavor.”  But, upon reflection, would you trust a man who has not taken a single college political science, history or economics course (according to the NYTM, he took one college course in “Early Christology” before dropping out) to educate you and your fellow citizens about United States Politics, American History and Economic Theory?  I didn’t think so.  I will no doubt be classified as an ‘elitist’ or an ‘ivory-tower dweller’ or labeled with some other neologism of a pejorative hue for my emphasis on the importance and defense of education.  It is indeed an area that I have committed a good part of my life and energy to and something that strikes me as an issue worthy of real attention, not just the latest trend of anti-intellectual education-bashing.

Both Beck and Hilton thrive on the public’s fascination with celebrity.  Having made no measurable contribution to society, both figures of popular interest could even be accused of detracting from matters of timely concern and seriousness.  Both celebrities are performers.  One performs on the runways and posh clubs of the world, drawing attention from paparozzi, the other is a rabble rouser on television and radio.

The cover story profile on Beck is indeed a page-turner.  It is enlightening for the breadth of its coverage of the Beck phenomenon.  What is most startling to me as a Franciscan friar (therefore, a public religious leader) and a young theologian teaching at a liberal arts college (therefore, something of an ‘authority’ on such subjects) is the shamelessly overt religious tone of Beck’s discourse and that of his admirers.  One of the most troubling quotes in the article is found on page 37, where the author writes:

“He has a spiritual connection to us; you can hear his heart speaking,” Susan Trevethan, a psychiatric nurse from Milford, Conn., told me at the “Restoring Honor” rally. “I believe he has been divinely guided to be here in this place,” she said.  “He is doing the research. He is teaching us.”

What?  “Divinely guided?”  “Research” and “Teaching?”  Unfortunately, this does not appear to be an exception among the adherents of ‘Beck-mania.’  It seems that many people — most of which I would assume are caught unawares of his Mormon faith, because many Evangelical Christians are NOT very tolerant of Mormons — see in Beck some sort of religio-political leader.  That some folks even see him as “divinely guided” strikes me as very disconcerting.

Take for example the divisiveness of his message.  From a theological perspective, I have to ask: What sort of God would guide a someone to a cable news network to preach against helping the least among us, intolerance of others, racial discrimination and threaten, even if only in jest, the physical safety of political and social leaders?  Where do these seeming Christian followers of Beck find this type of discourse or instruction in Scripture?  Perhaps the most egregious theological transgression to be promulgated from the Beck cathedra is his anti-Social Justice rhetoric.  Whereas Jesus preached justice and peace, calling on the rich to give up everything they owned to enter the Kingdom of God, saying the first will be last and the last will be first and castigating the would-be goats for their lack of service and overlooking the least among us, Beck often times preaches the contrast, supporting flagrant and selfish capitalism, while promoting hostility toward the most marginalized in our world (take your pick: the poor, the unhealthy, the racial minorities, the stranger and alien, the homosexual, and so on).

WWGBD is definitely not the same as WWJD.

But, perhaps I’m not being fair.  Beck does like to fall back on the fact that he simply “raises questions.”  What’s wrong with that?  The article continues:

President Obama is not a Muslim, Beck has said, correctly. But Beck can’t help wondering aloud on his show: “He needlessly throws his hat into the ring to defend the ground-zero mosque. He hosts Ramadan dinners, which a president can do. But then you just add all of this stuff up — his wife goes against the advice of the advisers, jets to Spain for vacation. What does she do there? She hits up the Alhambra palace mosque. Fine, it’s a tourist attraction. But is there anything more to this? Are they sending messages? I don’t know. I don’t know.”

I find this simply appalling.  One wonders why there is so much hostility and division in this country.  I can’t help but think that it’s partly the fault of this sort of vapid, yet dangerous, trash being tossed around.  In this respect, Beck remains nothing more than a dangerous showman who, like Paris Hilton, garners far more attention than he should, but unlike the hotel heiress, does so at the expense of civility and intelligence of the political, religious and cultural arenas.

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