Today’s readings talk about special people. You know, the “insiders.” Every group has them. No matter what club or organization you belong to, there is always the “in crowd.”
Church is supposed to be different. Church is not supposed to be about the “in crowd.” Church is supposed to be about communion and community. Church is supposed to be about relationship, among us and with God.
Church is not supposed to be only about the “scribes, who like to go around in long robes and accept greetings in marketplaces.” That is, Church is not supposed to be about clerics, and it is certainly not supposed to be about clericalism.
Different times and different cultures have different practices. So, when we learn in today’s reading from the Book of Hebrews that the high priest was the only one allowed in the sanctuary, perhaps we can understand, even appreciate the ways of the ancient world. But I wonder how those types of barriers might apply today. I mean, do they?
Are clerics the only ones allowed near the sacred? No, of course not. We are all part of the liturgy and some of us play a special part in it, as altar servers, lectors, and cantors.
So, whose Church is it?
Let’s go back to today’s Gospel. If Jesus was warning us about the scribes—the teachers of the law--what was Jesus saying about clericalism?
Recall that in today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel, Jesus warns us about those scribes who always took “seats of honor in synagogues and places of honor at banquets.” Somebody let those scribes sit up front. Somebody decided that what those scribes represented—the law—was most important in the community. Somebody ignored all sorts of biblical teaching to place the law and enforcers of the law above everybody else. Somebody said law was most important in the scheme of things.
And Jesus was not happy about it.
Then, Jesus explains. It wasn’t really about what they were wearing, or maybe even about their professions. Jesus was really interested in something else. Mark tells us that, after speaking about the scribes, Jesus sat down opposite the “treasury”—the ancient collection box—watching some people put in a lot of money. Then, Mark relates, a poor widow came forward with “two small coins.” She put in all she had. Mark tells us Jesus said, “she contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.”
What is the connection? How do these two stories match up? We have three different sets of people: the scribes, the rich donors, and the poor widow. First, Jesus warns us about the scribes, the local big shots. Then, Jesus points out that the very rich give only from their surplus funds. Then, Jesus seems to say the poor widow is the person we should admire. But why?
Quite simply, the scribes have professional status, and the rich people have money, but the widow has no one to depend upon but God. And, she is not putting her two coins into the treasury to buy any sort of celestial insurance. She is putting her two coins in to share what little she has with the rest of her community. She is putting her share into the treasury because she belongs to the group, because she is part of the people of God.
I do not think it means you need, today, to put your last nickel into the collection basket. I do think it means that you need to understand and believe that, no matter how you participate in church, you are a full member. You do not need to be a cleric or a teacher of the law or a millionaire to belong to the people of God. You are the people of God.
That is what I think. For sure, every group, every organization needs structure. Each creates for itself leaders, rules, and boundaries. And every organization depends on its supporters to carry on. But every organization needs to allow everyone the privilege of participation, in whatever way they can.
The Church, our Church, your Church, has leaders, rules, and boundaries. You are part of the people of God, and so am I. The difference with Church, I think, is that the leaders must continually learn from the others. Hierarchy—and all clerics are part of the hierarchy—hierarchy cannot cut itself off from the rest of people of God. Hierarchy, from me to the bishop to the pope, is part of the people of God. And saying hierarchy as part of the people of God is not just another way of controlling the Church. It means we all belong.
If we mean that, if we mean that we are all part of the people of God, then we need to realize what today’s reading from Hebrews teaches: Christ did not enter into a sanctuary made by hands, restricted and accessible only to special people. No, Christ came into our “sanctuary,” the world, and his suffering and resurrection were for all. So too, for all of us is access to Christ’s redemptive graces here, today, at this Mass.
And it will be the same again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. We are all equal members of the Church.
Dr. Phyllis Zagano is an internationally acclaimed Catholic scholar who has lectured throughout the United States, and in Canada, Europe, and Australia. Her many awards include the 2014 Isaac Hecker Award for Social Justice from The Paulist Center Community in Boston for “her prolific body of work that has constantly echoed the cry of the poorest of our society for dignity and for justice both inside and outside the church....specifically the dignity of all women.” Her groundbreaking work on women in the diaconate led to her appointment to the Pontifical Commission for the Study of the Diaconate of Women in 2016. She has taught at Fordham, Boston, and Yale Universities, and currently holds a research appointment at Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York. Her most recent book is Just Church: Catholic Social Teaching, Synodality, and Women (Paulist Press, 2023).