Homily for Mass for Monday of the 34th Week of Ordinary Time, Year 1

03 Dec 2023

Redemptoris Mater Seminary, Chester Hill, 27 November 2023

It’s the tenth largest ‘economy’ in the world, with a turnover of between $US1.7T to 4.5T per year, placing it somewhere between Canada and Germany as an economic power.[1] Yet it’s illegal and costs far more jobs than it creates. I’m talking about the counterfeit economy. Not counterfeit currency: that’s going out of vogue. But counterfeit luxury goods such as designer handbags, watches, footwear, clothes, cosmetics and sunglasses, counterfeit tech gadgets such as TVs, smartphones and gaming consoles, and the more old-fashioned counterfeit artworks and perfumes. They say that if it exists, it can be faked. Some analysts believe 10% of all branded goods sold globally are in fact counterfeits and that 80% of us have unknowingly handled fakes at some point.[2] To make matters worse, counterfeiters are ever more sophisticated and ever harder to detect.

It’s not just tangible goods that are the target of fraudsters. Technological improvements mean the digital world is awash with deceit and manipulation. Deepfakes, Photoshop and the rise of high-end editing have made it possible for anyone with a smartphone to whip-up highly realistic looking photos, videos and audio of other people, including celebrities and world leaders, saying or doing whatever the creator wishes.[3] Now there are on-line essay writers for lazy tertiary students and even AI-generated essays.[4] Apart from the legal, ethical and academic implications of all this, mass counterfeiting has amplified the erosion of trust in commercial, academic and online spaces, added to confusion about what’s real and what’s fake, and contributed to cynicism and polarisation in our communities.

Our spiritual lives, too, can be places where the real is traded in for the fake, where the label and the contents don’t match. Jesus was no fan of spiritual counterfeits: those hypocrites, who make an external show of their religiosity, but in whom it runs only skin deep; those with religious power who use it to help themselves rather than others; those who honour God with their lips, but not with their hearts, or who preach one thing and do another; those who purport to serve the one true God but make another god of money; those who criticize the specks in other people’s eyes while carrying a plank in their own; those “wolves in sheep’s clothing” who undermine the faith of others; those “whited sepulchres, beautiful on the outside but full of corruption within”.[5]

Today’s Gospel Parable of the Widow’s Mite (Lk 21:1-4) is commonly read as being about generosity and self-sacrifice. Fair enough. But there’s context to this story. In the preceding verses the religious authorities were interrogating Jesus. First, they try an exam in Fundamental Theology: “Tell us, by what authority are you doing these things—teaching, healing and the rest? (Lk 20:2) Refusing to answer them directly, Jesus tells the Parable of the Wicked Tenants (Lk 20:9-18). A landholder leases out his vineyard and the tenants do very nicely, but when the landlord’s messengers come to collect the rent they beat them up. Eventually the owner sends his own son. What do they do? They kill him and claim the vineyard for themselves. That’s what it’s like with you guys, Jesus is suggesting. God sent the prophets to Israel and you beat them up; God sends His only Son and you would kill Him.

The religious authorities were furious, and wanted to seize and kill Him then and there, but they feared the popular reaction. So they sent spies to trap Him with Moral Theology 101: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” is the exam question. But Jesus “perceived their craftiness” and silenced them with His answer (Lk 20:20-26).

So next they try Eschatology. The Sadducees examine him about life after death, and again He confounded them (Lk 20:27-40).

Jesus has had enough of this theology exam. He turns the tables on them now. He throws a question back at the priests and theologians, from Christology 101. How can the Messiah be David’s lord or king (as He calls Him in the psalms) and yet also be David’s son? They have no answer for Him.

Jesus now grades them with a very low mark indeed. These religious people wandering about in long robes or choosing places at table, all to get respect: they are counterfeits, He says. For all their long prayers, they shamelessly eat up the fortunes of widows. 0% for these cheats, Christ the Teacher is effectively saying.

All of which is in the background of our Parable of the Widow’s Mite. Perhaps she is one of those whose fortune has been gobbled up by these gurus with their faux piety. But now we see that the story is not so much about the quantum given or even about relative generosity. At its core Jesus’ words highlight that external giving is only ever to be evaluated by what it tells us about the real person within. A big gift might speak of a big heart, of the virtue of magnificence; or it might in fact represent a small heart, without real compassion or piety, just trying to impress, to big-note themselves, to create indebtedness and dependency. A small gift might speak of a niggardly heart, keep everything for itself, lacking in concern for others, or it might be a gesture of total self-giving, as in the case of our widow.

Jesus knew the peril of a counterfeit spirituality and was able to detect a phony from a mile away. He was aware of the damage it causes to others and to the self. The spiritual frauds are so caught up in the letter of the law they neglect the spirit, so concerned with the external veneer of religiosity, they forego true faith and charity. Ego pushes out God. Religion animated by anything other than love of God and neighbour is inauthentic, unsustainable, a fake.

So, dear sons, make a donation of your whole selves, all your wealth, to God and neighbour, as the widow did. Learn from Him your fundamental theology, your moral theology, your eschatology, your Christology and the rest. But learn from Him, especially, the authenticity of self-gift. Hold nothing back. Not ego, ambition, desire for worldly regard. Conform yourself to the One who was always honest, always the real deal, loving with a love that cannot be faked and external fruits that reflect what’s going on inside.

[1] Keith Goldstein, “The global impact of counterfeiting and solutions to stop it,” Forbes 2 August 2022 https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesbusinesscouncil/2022/08/02/the-global-impact-of-counterfeiting-and-solutions-to-stop-it/?sh=1e4b909b1ca2

[2] Alice Sherwood, “Spot the difference: the invincible business of counterfeit goods,” Guardian 10 May 2022 https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2022/may/10/spot-the-difference-the-invincible-business-of-counterfeit-goods

[3] Don Philmless, “Seeing is no longer believing: the rise of deepfakes,” Thomson Reuters 18 July 2023 https://www.thomsonreuters.com/en-us/posts/technology/practice-innovations-deepfakes/

[4] Rob Reich, “Now AI can write students’ essays for them, will everyone become a cheat?” Guardian 28 November 2022 https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/nov/28/ai-students-essays-cheat-teachers-plagiarism-tech

[5] Jesus on: Hypocrites who make an external show of their religiosity but in whom it runs only skin deep: Mt 6:1-18; ch. 23; Lk 18:10-14; 20:46-47. Those with religious power who use it to help themselves rather than others: Mt 23:4,13,15. Those who preach or profess one thing and do another: Mt 23:3. Those who honour God with their lips, but not with their hearts or actions: Mt 7:21-23; 15:7-9; 16:15; Mk 7:6; Lk 6:46. Those who purport to serve God but make another god of money: Lk 16:13. Those “whited sepulchres, beautiful on the outside but full of corruption within”: Lk 23:27-28. Those hypocrites who criticize the specks in other people’s eyes while carry a plank in their own: Mt 7:1-5; 23:24; Lk 6:42. Those “wolves in sheep’s clothing” who undermine the faith of others (Mt 7:15).

Introduction to Mass for Monday of the 34th Week of Ordinary Time, Year 1 – Redemptoris Mater Seminary, Chester Hill, 27 November 2023

A very warm welcome dear seminarians to this evening’s Mass as part of my visitation of the seminary for 2023. I thank Fr Eric, Fr Marlon, Fr Gerry, the other staff and friends of the seminary, and all of you members of the seminary community for welcoming me once again. I’ve already had the pleasure of meeting with some of you individually today and look forward to speaking with more of you tomorrow.