Whether you’re into Poker or not, the popularity of that card game – to the point that even those tournaments are broadcast as events on television – has impacted our language in a specific way: the widespread usage of the expression to be “all in.” In Poker, it’s a dramatic moment of confidence, recklessness, or desperation when a player decides to bet all their chips on a single hand. You either win or lose everything in a flash. This expression made the leap from that game and now you can hear people being “all in” seemingly everywhere. Politicians will say they are “all in” on a particular position or proposal to align themselves with activists who agree with a particular cause. Sports fans will say they are “all-in” for their team – they keep watching, keep going to games, keep supporting them year after year, season after season despite even a losing record. A tour guide at the Sistine Chapel in Rome described Michelangelo as he set about to paint the masterpiece of that famous ceiling which required his spending years, lying on his back toiling as he wiped sweat and plaster from his eyes as being “all in.” The same was said about a professional rock-climber named Alex Honnold when he decides to climb a rock without using ropes or protective gear.
Thanks so much for stopping by to read this, my homily for the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time -November 7, 2021, for sharing it on your social media posts and your feedback and comments… I’m also grateful for all those who’ve asked for the audio version and share them as well at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE. May the Lord be glorified in your reading and sharing Sincerely in Christ – Father Jim
While in poker, going all-in can be this thrilling win or lose definitive moment that is a spectacular risky gamble – the way it’s used now kind of runs the spectrum. People more often use it to make a bold declaration about the importance of what they are saying they are doing. But do they always mean what they say? There’s more than a couple of politicians who’ve assured their constituents they’re all in on a particular issue, who proved otherwise and didn’t lose their positions in subsequent elections. At least a couple of those “all-in” Giants fans have stopped watching those games but will re-emerge when/if they ever make it to the Super Bowl again. That’s one reason people tend to treat the notion of being “all in” as just an expression, an exaggeration we use for dramatic effect. Yet, it’s hard to question the commitment of Michelangelo whose work hundreds of years later still inspires awe; or the (depending upon your perspective daring/insane) rock climber with his death-defying climbs seems to indicate being pretty clearly“all-in.”
What are the things you’re all in for? What are the priorities in your life – the things you are living for – that you are willing to die for. Those are quite heady and heavy questions. But today’s scriptures where we encounter these two widows pretty squarely force that question in front of us.
In the first reading from the Old Testament, the prophet Elijah encounters this widow asking her for something to eat. She responds that she is down to her last morsel of food. She was going to cook it for herself and her son as a final meal. She’s that poor and vulnerable. The prophet asks her to do as she was planning, but to cook for him first with promises that if she does, the Lord God will see to it that “the jar of flour shall not go empty, nor the jug of oil run dry.” The widow in the Gospel is even bolder. Seemingly no one notices her – St. Mark, the Gospel writer doesn’t even catch her name, no one in the temple that day is impressed by the pittance she is offering. These two coins worth a few cents – will not make or break any capital campaign or keep the candles burning.
What compels them to go all-in? To put their very lives on the line? Love. Both women were responding in love to God. In their material poverty, they were free of the distractions and temptations of the world which would cause them to maniacally calculate, speculate on how much they should give to the Lord God. They could sense with every beat of their hearts the very presence and action of God who had created them and sustained them. They had determined that breath of life was ultimately the greatest gift they had received, the most precious thing they possessed, and the only thing that mattered. And in an act of pure selflessness, they definitively go “all in” with their very lives hanging in the balance. The first widow, her gamble paid off nicely with what we read in scripture was at least a year of a bottomless supply of flour and oil. The second widow – we don’t know what happened as she gives the last few cents that would have enabled her survival here on earth. Which is what makes it even more bold and courageous. She’s giving them to God as an act of praise, she has accepted the reality this might be the last act she will do on this earth and has committed her soul to Him.
Too many would see these two women as being reckless and foolish to do what they did. Because they don’t understand what love really means. Over the last 22 years of being a priest that’s been a painful reality I’ve seen over and over – that so many have never experienced true love so they don’t know how to offer it themselves. A guy hooks up with a girl for a night and they whisper “I love you”– that’s not Love. A parent or a spouse makes outrageous, guilt-ridden demands and says “If you love me you’ll do this” – that’s not love either. There are countless stories or examples of destructive, or manipulative behavior that people have been told or led to believe is loving behavior and that is shockingly sad. And for those who’ve gone through such experiences, then these two widows might seem foolish and reckless. Those types of hurts leave people wounded and listening to a world that says the only thing to go “all in” for is yourself.
For those who’ve gone through that or have been led to believe that, I’m sorry for the pain that has been caused. But it’s important to recognize those things as distortions of what true love is. Because – the reality is you can’t read the Gospels, you can’t read the scriptures and not walk away with an overwhelming, earth-shattering revelation: Jesus Christ loves us with this foolish, reckless love. God is All In on you and me. The creator of the Universe – who LOVED YOU AND ME INTO EXISTENCE. He keeps loving us by giving us His son Jesus Christ – by telling us we are to follow Him and His example – which is a life of complete self-emptying, giving up his life, giving up everything for you and for me. And when that registers, when that clicks, the only response is going all in on Him. Loving Him that same way He does, which the world calls foolish, reckless but that the Lord sees as selfless and sacrificial.
That’s why even though no one knows her name and those in the temple are unimpressed by this poor widow, the only thing that matters is that Jesus does. He sees her. He notices her. He’s touched and moved because he sees she’s acting with that same selfless, sacrificial love that He loves us with. He sees that she gets it. That she’s been changed by the God who has so foolishly, recklessly loved her, and that she loves Him like that – by giving all that she has left to Him, knowing he won’t abandon her or let her faith be shown to be foolish or reckless.
Nor will He let that be done to us.
A few weeks ago, when I was getting a hair cut – my barber, a guy who’s in his mid-thirties, whose been Catholic his whole life, who I’ve been going to for about 4 or 5 years now, started talking about how he was an altar server growing up. And that for the longest time he thought being a priest was like that – just something that a man volunteered to do. I kind of laughed and said, well in one way I guess you could say we do. He laughed and said, “well yeah but I didn’t realize at the time after Mass I just went home – I didn’t know that priests this was like your job and that you couldn’t have kids or get married.”
It really struck me on a whole lot of levels. Most obviously though is that we’re not really articulating the beauty of the priesthood – and that it’s not a job or thing I volunteer to do to do something nice to help people… or why is it that priests can’t get married. I suppose after years of horrific scandals in the news involving priests and even some examples that aren’t criminal but where people have encountered priests who are joyless or angry or are conflicted themselves – I may have kind of shied away from even talking about being a priest. In the process though, we’ve allowed a narrative that being celibate is cruel and unusual punishment – and talking points that celibacy is demanded out of a desire for control is some weird or distorted thing that needs to be abandoned.
Granted, when I made a promise to remain celibate as a 24-year-old man back in 1998, I didn’t know how challenging it would be. I knew the sacrifices I was being asked to make. I had an idea that yeah, these would be difficult. But no, I didn’t know the full extent of how hard they would be. That temptation would come. I knew that God would not keep me in a bubble to protect that from happening nor make me some lifeless fish without desires of the heart (thank God for that). But yeah, it is not always easy. And sure my mind can wander sometimes imagining what my life would’ve looked like having a wife, having children of my own.
But I love being a priest. And I can say I’ve grown to love being celibate because it’s a way that I’m being asked to say to the world that I am “All in” with Jesus and His call in my life. It reminds me in a uniquely personal way I can’t do any of this without Jesus Christ being front and center in my life. The minute he’s not, and I can sadly attest to this from personal experience – it becomes painful, and it’s like you’re led into a buffet with endless options of despair, discouragement and temptations. But when I let Him meet me in this poverty of mine – He fills me with true love and joy. I can’t articulate what that joy is in my heart celebrating the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass or absolving someone’s sins in confession – or any of the sacramental moments where Jesus uses me to express here and now to each of you what He does in this Gospel to that widow – that He sees, He notices, He loves you that He is willing to lay down His life for you. That is in part made real by my celibacy.
And the longer I’ve been living this life, the more I see how it’s similar to the difficulties that married couples face. That husbands and wives have similar challenges. That they make sacrifices that they knew would be difficult but could never have imagined the full extent of them on their wedding days. How the temptations would come. How their desires and wondering “what if” would distract them. But that they too say to the world that they are “All in” with Jesus as well. That they realize they couldn’t remain joyful about their lives, or faithful to their vows without Jesus Christ being front and center in their lives either.
What are the priorities in your life – the things you are living for – that you are willing to die for. Jesus Christ promises us if we make it Him, we will have Him which is the only thing we truly need. And we will become part of that great band of witnesses who have transformed this world with His very presence in every time and place since. That’s not a gamble – it’s an act of faith that He promises is worth our going all in.