Monday, October 5, 2015


St. Francis - Nicholas Roerich
St Francis Nicholas Roerich (1931)
Christianity has always been somewhat ambivalent about poverty. On the one hand, from the earliest times the relief of poverty has been seen as a sacred Christian duty, and it continues to be an indispensable part of the Church’s work at home and abroad. On the other hand, poverty has also been held out as a Christian ideal. St Francis, whose feast day is celebrated in October, famously made ‘Lady Poverty’ his spiritual companion. But if poverty is such a good thing, why are Christians trying to relieve it? 
The Gospel for this Sunday makes this question even more pressing. In a striking (and original) image Jesus tells us that it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of heaven. That seems to mean that prosperity is a bad thing. If this is the true, then are we wrong to look and work for a world in which economic prosperity puts an end to poverty.  If that truly is the Christian message, it can't expect to receive much of hearing. Of course, it's always possible to fudge the issue by confining the description ‘rich’ to the phenomenally wealthy few --millionaires or billionaires. But that really does not work. By historical standards and in comparison with many other parts of the world today, huge numbers of people in developed countries count as ‘rich’. Compared to us, the 'rich young ruler' who walked sadly away was not so very rich. 
The rich - Remedios Varo
The Rich Remedios Varo (1958)
So what are we to think about wealth and poverty? It’s important to see that in this passage from Mark Jesus is addressing a particular young man, someone with sincere spiritual longings. Jesus doesn’t criticize or condemn him, but ‘looking at him, loved him’. Yet when, out of love, he points to the thing that stands in the way of these longings, the young man is shocked and grieved. In this reaction he reveals that his wealth is a serious spiritual obstacleThis is the perspective from which we need to examine ourselves. Taking faith in Jesus seriously, obliges us to admit that being as wealthy as we are means running a great spiritual risk. The pursuit of worldly goods, even at a relatively modest level can become everything, and our 'spiritual' quest not much more challenging than a personal hobby. At the same time, though, poverty can be an obstacle to grace – a condition of life so grinding that the human spirit cannot rise above the level of mere survival. In reality, then, the two ideals -- eschewing wealth and relieving poverty -- can and should be brought together.  
Jesus, the Epistle to the Hebrews declares, is one 'who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need'. Christians in the wealthy Western world are often spiritually encumbered by their wealth. Their need is to get rid of that encumbrance. By freely giving it away, they open themselves up again to the things of eternal life. In very same act, these gifts, if thoughtfully directed, can alleviate the needs of others. To free people from grinding poverty is open a door to their spiritual liberty.

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