Monday, August 26, 2013


On the surface, the Gospel for this week takes a radically egalitarian turn. It is readily interpreted as Jesus’ most powerful statement of his ‘option for the poor’, and a corresponding rejection of all social hierarchies. Interpreted in this way, many Christians have seen in it an affirmation of the Gospel’s compelling relevance to the real world of poverty and injustice.

However, if this passage really is meant to recommend the abandonment of social, economic and political hierarchies, in reality it can claim little relevance to human life. Virtually every human society has distinguished between people in terms of their power, wealth and accomplishments. This reflects such a deep tendency in human beings, that even modern democratic societies are shaped by social divisions of this kind, and there seems little prospect of its ever being otherwise.

Illustration from the Book of Sirach (German, 1751)
A more nuanced interpretation of the passage emerges, though, if we consider it in conjunction with the brief reading from Sirach. ‘The beginning of human pride’ the writer says, ‘is to forsake the Lord; the heart has withdrawn from its Maker’. It is not social distinction as such that causes destructive divisions between human beings, but the pride that it so often, and so easily, both reflects and fosters. The key Christian concept is not social equality but personal humility – a humility born of the constant awareness that neither wealth nor power can render us any less dependent upon the grace of God, in comparison with whose glory even our greatest achievements seem fleeting and paltry.

As several of Jesus parables reveal, the great danger of wealth and prestige is that it makes it far harder for those who enjoy it to  ‘act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God’.