October 29-November 5, 2008 – Mother Teresa: great saint or great fraud?

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Warm-up Question: What makes a “modern day saint”?

Nobel Peace Laureate, Christian celebrity, and a person on the fast-track to sanctification in the Catholic Church — all of these characteristics describe one woman, Mother Teresa. For many people, she is the greatest example for someone who lived a truly Christian life. Now, with the publication of a new book, a few dissenting voices that have been calling her a fraud all along have become prominent again.

Mother Teresa was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu in Macedonia to parents who were of Albanian descent. At the age of eighteen, she left home and joined the Sisters of Loreto who ran missions in India. As a nun, she first taught at a high school in Calcutta. Seventeen years later, in 1948, she received permission to devote herself to the care of the dying in the slums of Calcutta. She started her own order, the Missionaries of Charity, and won support of her cause all over the world. Mother Teresa’s work has been praised by church leaders and ordinary people alike. In 1979, she won the Nobel Peace Price.

Critics of Mother Teresa have always pointed out that she represented the most fundamentalist views of Catholicism. She condemned abortion and divorce, for example, even in cases of abuse. Her critics also questioned her order’s fundraising methods and her verbal support of dictators such as the Duvalier family of Haiti who donated money to her cause. They also pointed out that, in their opinion, her display of poverty was a show and that, when it came to her own health treatment, she went to hospitals in Western Europe and the United States, not to the hospital run by her order.

While her previous critics did not have much of an audience, a different kind of evidence has now surfaced that could damage Mother Teresa’s image of a saintly human being. It appears that Mother Teresa, after beginning her work with the poor in Calcutta, lost her faith. For almost 50 years, with the exception of a few weeks, she did not feel the presence of God in her heart or when receiving the Eucharist. In one of her letters to her confessor she wrote: “Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.”

The people who compiled this and similar letters in “Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light” want to show that the perceived absence of God can still be a divine gift that enables people to do saintly works. Yet, Mother Teresa’s critics and others ask why she was able to smile and talk about the presence of God in the world if she herself felt nothing but darkness and loneliness.

Could it be that one of the greatest women among us was actually one of the lowliest? Or does one of Mother Teresa’s most quoted sentences ring especially true for her own life: “I do not pray for success, I ask for faithfulness.”

Discussion Questions

  • Do you think that Mother Teresa will be considered more or less of a Christian in the eyes of the world when people find out that she felt further away from God than most of us?
  • How can someone who doubts the existence of God still do good works in God’s name?
  • Which do you think is better: to act like a Christian but be a non-believer, or to believe and not act according to your faith? Why?
  • Should charities accept donations from unethical or questionable sources, even if they use that money for a good cause? What would be some examples that you’re aware of? (e.g., tobacco company money being used for health care projects, social ministry program accepting gambling money, etc.)
  • Describe a time or experience in your life when God felt close, and a time when God felt distant or not there at all? What or who helped you during these experiences?
  • What should people do who work for the church but feel that they have (temporarily) lost their faith?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, November 2, 2008.
(Text links are to
oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year A at Lectionary Readings.)

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.

Scripture Reflection

Our text from the Gospel of Matthew is part of a longer speech by Jesus preached against the scribes and the Pharisees. It leads into a symbolic action by Jesus who leaves the temple in order to show that it is doomed.

Matthew 23 has been called “the unloveliest chapter in the Gospel” because it portrays the Pharisees and scribes in the most negative way possible. The experience of the Holocaust has taught us that this chapter contributed to anti-Jewish sentiments among Christians. Even in modern languages, “Pharisee” is often synonymous with “hypocrite”. This is why we should approach this text carefully and without preconceived notions about Judaism then and now.

But our Gospel text is not so much about what others do wrong and what we do right. Instead, it asks for humility and a focus on Christ. Most of us are talented and gifted people, in one area or another. These gifts should be celebrated and used, for sure. But we often want to use our gifts and talents to show the world that we are someone special; we want our 15 minutes of fame. We want to be the fastest, or the prettiest, or the most talented, or the most watched video on Youtube, or the best in something. But we should remember that there is only one teacher, only one master, only one leader, and only one Savior — Jesus Christ. Knowing and accepting this can lead us to use all of our wonderful gifts and talents for the benefit of others; not to put ourselves on a pedestal, but to be God’s hands in the world.

The Jesus who is “gentle and humble in heart” (Matthew 11:29) thus becomes our model for a truly Christian life. Matthew imagines the community comprised of Jesus’ followers to be one that does not have hierarchies. Instead, it should be a community of equality among sisters and brothers who serve each other as well as people outside of the community. This type of community can prosper and live together through difficult times. Among people who are truly sisters and brothers, times of personal trial can be survived because when one member is weak, others can be strong for them.

Discussion Questions

  • Who do you consider to be a great example for the Christian faith?
  • Is there a group of people you know of who live out their Christian faith in better ways than others?
  • Who are they and what do they do?
  • What would a church look like, in which the principles from Matthew 23 are followed closely?
  • Discuss the practicality of the vision for the Christian community in Matthew 23.

Activity Suggestions

  • Psalms about a distant God
    The Book of Psalms preserves many voices that complain about a distant God or ask God to come near once again. Read in small groups or together some examples for such texts: Psalm 43, Psalm 42, or Psalm 22:1-20. Then, ask your students to write a “modern psalm” that talks about what somebody might experience who feels that God has left him or her.
  • A modern day saint
    Split your students into small groups of two or three and ask them to develop a schedule for someone who they consider a modern day saint. What would their day or their week look like? Have a few sheets of paper ready with an outline of a person drawn on them. Students can write the schedules in or around that outline, or decorate it to show what a modern day saint might look like. Display the sheets and discuss the results in the group.
  • Love letters
    Mother Teresa is reported to have said, “I am a little pencil in the hand of a writing God who writes a love letter to the world,” and “We are all pencils in the hand of God.” Ask your students to write, from the perspective of God, a love letter to the world. What do they think would God want to say to God’s people in our modern world? You can make this task more memorable if you get pencils with scripture verses printed on them that students can take home after today’s lesson.

Closing Prayer

Dear God, there are times when we feel that you are close to us. In those times, it is easy for us to do your will and to be a follower of you and your son. But there are also times when you feel so far away. We ask you to give us a strong community and a few “modern day saints” in our lives that will support us when we feel left alone by you. And give us the strength to return the favor and care for others when they need it. Amen

Contributed by Pastor Claudia Bergmann
Eisleben, Germany