The Hard Sayings of the Gospel
What Gospel teachings won’t you hear about at a typical parish? Conservatives lament the lack of sermons addressing the worthy reception of the Eucharist and the evils of abortion. Progressives decry the lack of sermons on social justice and care for the poor.
I’ve heard sermons on abortion and on helping the poor, and I’ve heard plenty of “asking sermons” in which priests urge the faithful to support the parish with time, talent, and treasure. I’ve only heard one sermon, though, on the spiritual dangers of owning a lot of “treasure”. That sermon, I should add, was given by a visiting priest. He said that he could only speak on such a dangerous topic because he’d be gone by the morning!
The Gospels strongly emphasize voluntary poverty. The rich young ruler went away sad, because he would not give up his possessions. The rich man, unlike Lazarus, had his good things in this life and eternal fire in the afterlife. God called the man with his bulging barns a fool. The poor are blessed, according to Christ. The Pharisees, who loved money, sneered at God Incarnate.
The Misuse of a Teaching
In a wealthy and powerful country, the topic of Gospel poverty tends to be avoided. It might annoy the rich and cause them to leave the Church. Someone recently told me, however, that Gospel poverty is preached to the poor in the Global South. According to him, in poor countries poverty is preached to the poor and oppressed as a way to keep them subservient and to distract them from the injustice of their oppressors. I don’t know how common this misuse of the Gospel poverty concept is. What is certain is that it is a misuse.
Serving the Poor to the Point of Poverty
The path to heaven for the rich, the only way for them to fit through the needle, is to serve the poor. Such service has to go far beyond that asked by the time-talent-and-treasure sermons. In general, the rich are only too happy to give donations, so long as such giving doesn’t impede their lifestyles. They give of their surplus, not of their need, as Christ pointed out. Fr. Dubay, speaking of this, says:
“We may consider a concrete example. At Mass one Sunday morning in October a serious, deeply religious couple hear that the following week there is going to be a collection for the foreign missions. As they drive home Mrs. Jones is likely to say, “Bill, do you think we could afford something like $20 or $30 for this collection?” After some musing Mr. Jones may well respond that he, too, thinks they could afford that amount as their contribution. While most would indeed consider Mr. and Mrs. Jones a generous couple, we must note something significant. When both of them used the expression “we could afford”, they meant “without changing significantly our level of consumption.” They did not mean “we could afford $20 or $30 if we dine out less frequently or give up smoking or cocktails, or if we cancel our vacation trip, or sell one of our sports cars.”—Happy Are You Poor, pp. 84-85
While we might not consider ourselves “rich”, the average American is wealthy by world and historical standards. If we are able to spend money on unnecessary items, then we are wealthy by Gospel standards. St. Paul writes to Timothy “For we brought nothing into the world, just as we shall not be able to take anything out of it. If we have food and clothing, we shall be content with that.” (1 Timothy 6:7-8) The Church calls us to put the needs of those who lack food, clothing, and basic shelter ahead of our desires for recreation, amusement, and fashion.
If the “asking sermons” were really heeded, the rich would become poor. In the body, would the hand ornament itself while the foot bled to death? In the family, would a brother take an expensive vacation while his sister starved to death? This is the meaning of the parable of the unjust steward: the rich are to make friends for themselves with the mammon of iniquity. The rich are to give it to the poor, and it is the friendship of the poor that will get the rich into heaven.
Is this a Swap?
Wouldn’t such a giving away of wealth merely swap the conditions of the rich and poor? No, for two reasons. Practically, there are more poor than rich. Every wealthy individual who gives up a mansion could build many modest homes in the Third World, without making anybody wealthy. “There is enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for anyone’s greed.”
Theoretically speaking, such a “swap” isn’t desirable. From a Gospel perspective, wealth is undesirable, but so is destitution. Destitution is the lack of necessary goods and is bad for the soul just as it is bad for the body. We’re composite creatures, and damage to one part of ourselves is likely to reflect onto the other. The Christian ideal is that of Acts, where we see the rich selling what they have to give to the poor, and where “none of them lacked anything”.
Lifting the Poor out of Destitution
This highlights the folly of preaching Gospel poverty to the destitute. The poor, hungry and persecuted are indeed blessed. Why is this so? Because Jesus identifies himself with them. He lived among the poor, had nowhere to lay his head, and died on a cross. This identification means that as we treat the poor, so we treat Christ.
By all means, the Church should preach the dignity of the oppressed and poor—and the Church must warn their oppressors that eternal ruin may befall them if they do not recognize that dignity and act upon it.
Pontius Pilate was famously indifferent to the truth, and he refused to sacrifice his personal safety and ambitions to protect Truth himself in the guise of a poor, suffering Man before him. If Pilate had seen the face of God in the marginalized, he would have been a transfigured man. As it is, barring a last-minute conversion, we can suppose that his second face-to-face encounter with Christ was not a pleasant one.
The Interconnected Gospel
As it turns out, the neglected or misused topic of Gospel poverty has a close connection to the other “hard sayings” mentioned earlier, to social justice and abortion and the worthy reception of the Eucharist. Social justice without an embrace of Gospel poverty is a farce. The wealthy, merely by reason of their wealth, are unjust and oppressive. From the teaching of Church Fathers such as Basil the Great and John Chrysostom, through Thomas Aquinas and the medieval scholastics, right up to the teachings of Pope Francis and the Catechism of St. John Paul II, the Church has taught the universal destination of human goods. The surplus wealth of the rich belongs to the poor, not due to charity, but due to justice. Those who keep what belongs to another are unjust and commit the sin of theft.
This injustice makes the wealthy guilty of murder; they are responsible for the deaths of those whom they should have helped, including the many children aborted because their parents face economic hardship.
Such callousness to the life of others turns the Eucharist from the sacrament of life into the potential for damnation. St. Paul warns that those who receive unworthily eat and drink damnation upon themselves. What is not so well known is that this warning was given to a community which was not honoring the poor among them. In First Corinthians, St. Paul explains that our reception of the Eucharist makes us into one body in Christ. As members of the same body, we must care for one another.
The Epistle of James on Gospel Poverty
This Christian stance on wealth can be clearly seen in the following quotations from the Epistle of James: he calls the poor blessed, calls on the Church to feed and clothe them, and warns of the coming condemnation of the rich who do not aid the poor.
1:27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world . . .
2:1-6 My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court?
2:14-16 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?
5:1-5 Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.
For more on Gospel Poverty, see our outline of Fr. Dubay’s Happy Are You Poor.