Sunday, October 14, 2012

What Does Jesus Have Against Wealth?


Ordinary Time
28th Sunday - Year B
October 14, 2012

How would you respond to the young man’s question in today’s Gospel? Imagine that someone at work or school asks you how to get into heaven. How would your respond to this person? Is the sole criteria simply living a generally good life, a life without any grave sins, a life according to the commandments? Or, is there something more to it?

Our readings today teach us that eternal life is not about being good, it is about being with God. 
Nicholas Colombel,
Christ Expelling the Money-Changers from the Temple (1682)

In our Gospel we hear about a unique man who came to Jesus not wanting physical healing or food. He didn’t come to trick Jesus like the Pharisees. This man came with a question. He was a wealthy man, but he wanted something more. He wanted the greatest of all possessions: eternal life. Little did he know that Eternal Life was standing before him and inviting the man to come follow Him.

By the man’s reaction, we know Jesus found the man’s weakness. Sharper than any sword, Jesus penetrated the man’s heart and revealed that there was “one thing” he was lacking: an unconditional yes to God. He was attached to his earthly wealth and not attached to the ways of God. This zealous man who had run to the Son of God and knelt before Him was now walking away from Him sad. The young man was a good man, he followed the commandments, but now he turns his back on God’s love and turns towards his earthly possessions! He wanted eternal life, but he wasn’t willing to give up his earthly possessions to attain it. 

What does Jesus have against wealth?

Jesus is not opposed to wealth. Wealth can give glory to God. There is the example of the woman who anointed Jesus with expensive oils before His death, and the example of Joseph of Arimathea who wrapped the body of Jesus in fine linen and placed it in a new tomb. Jesus is simply teaching us today that there is a danger that comes with wealth. Wealth can enslave a person. It can keep a person from following God. And frighteningly, it can even keep a person from entering into heaven.

With modern technology, this is even more of an issue. The world is ever more full of noise and distractions that lead us away from an intimate union with God. The modern world tries to convince us that we simply cannot be happy without this or that, or this that goes with that, or that which comes in three different colors. Yet, why is it that with all these time saving devices and apps, we still have so little time? Families still don’t have time to eat together. There still doesn’t ever seem to be enough time in the day for prayer. And why is it that with all these technologies that connect us with each other, people feel more alone than ever? 

True happiness cannot come from material things. It simply can’t. We were made from love and for love. Anything less than love will inevitably bring us sorrow. Material things, therefore, are only good in so far as they help us to love more. I can’t help but think of the classic film A Man for All Seasons in which St. Thomas More says to Richard Rich, “It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the world. But for Wales?”  

Before telling the young man what he must do to attain treasure in heaven, the Gospel says Jesus looked at him and loved him. Jesus didn’t reprimand the man, He loved him. And this was no ordinary love, this was God’s love. The same love with which God sent His Beloved Son and the same love with which the Beloved Son accepted the Cross. God loves each and every one of us with an inexhaustible love. This young man caught a glimpse of that, yet he turned the other way. Jesus gave him love, and the man gave him his back. God knows what will make you happy and He wants to give it to you, but He will never force it upon you. Jesus let the man walk away.

We don’t know what ended up happening to the young man in our Gospel reading today. We never even learn his name. We just know he left in sadness. Do not go away sad today. You have something this man did not. Jesus Christ, Eternal Life, gives Himself completely to you this day at the altar. Don’t turn your back on this Love. Strive each day to remove whatever will keep you away from this Love. In so doing, you will find true happiness.

6 comments:

  1. Thanks Dcn. Nathan. This is very well done and very true.

    One nit though. I wonder, though, if you aren't letting the wealthy off the hook too easily by reducing it to this laudatory, true, and valuable but ultimately vague appeal to not be enslaved by anything. The casual reader would be forgiven for thinking it akin to those all too common protestant sermons which seem more geared toward comforting the rich church-goers that they were not necessarily bound for hell than teaching the gospel message.

    To put it another way, if "Jesus is not opposed to wealth" what are we to make of these comments:

    “Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life.>The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs” (CCC 2446).

    “Once the demands of necessity and propriety have been met, the rest of what one owns belongs to the poor” (Rerum Novarum P. 36)

    “If one who takes the clothing off another is a thief, why give any other name to one who can clothe the naked and refuses?” (St Basil the Great)

    “The rich are in possession of the goods of the poor, even if they have acquired them honestly or inherited them legally.” (St. John Chrysostom)

    "It is foolishness and a public madness to fill the cupboards with clothing and allow men who are created in God’s image and likeness to stand naked and trembling with cold, so that they can hardly hold themselves upright." (St. John Chrysostom)

    "those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples." Luke 14:33

    “But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort." Luke 6:24

    Is not the obvious conclusion from these passages that it is, in fact, harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle? That is to say, is it not the obvious implication of these passages that it is a positive sin not to give up all of our luxuries?

    Granted, it is difficult to define exactly what is a "luxury". But, I think, as Ross Douthat has pointed out, that we who more easily identify with the political right are at risk of heretically under-emphasizing the sins of money at least as much as those who more easily identify with the political left are at risk of heretically under-emphasizing the sins of sex.

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    1. "...we who more easily identify with the political right are at risk of heretically under-emphasizing the sins of money at least as much as those who more easily identify with the political left are at risk of heretically under-emphasizing the sins of sex."

      Could be, but every single study bears out the fact that those on the right give far more to charity than those on the left, even if those on the right have less income. So in the "doing and giving", conservatives come closer to what Christ asks of us. Supporting massive government entitlement programs is not what Jesus meant when He said that "we" need to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, and I think those of us on the right tend to understand that our obligations go much deeper than "paying taxes = charity".

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    2. These are very good points. This is a very big subject, but I hope I can clarify at least a couple of the points you raised. Jesus makes it pretty clear what he thinks about wealth, especially in the Gospel passage from this past Sunday. Wealth makes it difficult to enter the kingdom of God, but it seems important to note that Jesus doesn’t necessarily eliminate the possibility. After all, “All things are possible for God.” Pope Benedict mentioned this briefly in his Sunday Angelus just yesterday.

      It seems to me to be important to make some distinctions in regards to wealth. Jesus mentions giving up house and land, but he also mentions those who leave their family members behind “for the sake of the Gospel.” He contrasts those who leave these things behind with a more abundant wealth that is to come in an age to come. If Jesus was unilaterally against wealth, it would be very odd that he is promising a more abundant wealth in the age to come. Here, we must make the distinction between material wealth and spiritual wealth. When Jesus is speaking about wealth and poverty, it is important to determine if he is speaking about material wealth/poverty or spiritual wealth/poverty.

      In this specific story of the rich young man, the invitation to sell everything and follow Christ is an invitation to a very specific person. That was a vocation God was giving to the young man, a vocation much like he gave to the Apostles. This is not necessarily the vocation of all people though. At the same time, we can learn a lot from this encounter and Jesus uses it specifically to teach the disciples about wealth (hopefully that's what I did in the homily as well). The Beatitudes (and the corresponding woes of Luke’s Gospel) emphasize a poverty, but it is a poverty in Spirit (Matthew makes this much more explicit). This is certainly essential for everyone no matter what their particular vocation is, but the calling to physically leave everything behind, even family members, is not meant for all Christians. Nevertheless, no one should be spiritually attached to the wealth they do have, since the goods they possess truly aren’t their own.

      When talking about wealth, I think it is also important to be cautious not to fall into a socialist view of material goods or a gnostic view of the material world. Matter is indeed good, and private ownership is in accordance with the law of nature (Rerum Novarum,13). Thus, it is not inherently evil or sinful to have a certain amount of physical wealth. If the poor are being neglected at the same time, that’s a very different story.

      I know that doesn’t cover everything but I hope it explains a little. The social documents of the Church certainly explain it better than I ever can, but hopefully there isn’t any heresy in my response. :)

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    3. I agree that we are not to be socialists, but wasn't "St. Thomas [] quite clear that the right to basic necessities trumps the right to private property"? (see http://catholicdefense.blogspot.com/2009/11/give-up-all-you-have-and-follow-me.html). Thus in a world where people lack basic necessities, is the possession of luxuries (carefully defined) a sin?

      I'm not sure I understood an answer from your response. I admit that we are not all called to voluntary poverty, but this is not the real issue. As David Cloutier has clarified "in the 18th century, one of the reasons luxury was embraced as acceptable [in popular Christendom] was the claim that if we were only supposed to have what is 'necessary,' we would be reduced to bread and water and a cave. But that’s a false choice. 'Necessary for human flourishing' is how we should read that [from Rerum Novarum], not 'necessary for bare survival.'" (http://catholicmoraltheology.com/better-off/)

      So we are not all called to voluntary poverty in the sense of a commitment either to hold no personal property (as in the case of most religious orders) or a direct renunciation of possessions (as in the case of Peter Maurin). But we are called to the abandonment of what might be termed "luxuries" unless we hold them in a kind of "trust" for the poor, right?

      Or am I off base? It seems that you don't want to say that here and I'm not sure why in light of the quotations I gave above. Really, I can't seem to find any direct an honest discussion on this issue, so I don't know what to think. Perhaps we don't want to be judgmental of the many people who do live in luxury? I'm not sure. In any event, I fear that this undermines the credibility of the Christian message. Consider:

      It's rare to hear a strident Sunday sermon about the temptations of the five-course meal and the all-you-can-eat buffet, or to hear a high-profile pastor who addresses the sin of greed in the frank manner of, say, Saint Basil the Great in the fourth century AD:

      "The bread that you possess belongs to the hungry. The clothes that you store in boxes, belong to the naked. The shoes rotting by you, belong to the bare-foot. The money that you hide belongs to anyone in need. You wrong as many people as you could help."

      Note that Basil isn't arguing for a slightly higher marginal tax rate to fund modest improvements in public services. He's passing judgment on individual sins, and calling for individual repentance. There are conservative Christians today who seem terrified of even remotely criticizing Wall Street tycoons and high-finance buccaneers, lest such criticism be interpreted as an endorsement of the Democratic Party's political agenda. But a Christianity that cannot use the language of Basil - and of Jesus - to attack the cult of Mammon will inevitably be less persuasive when the time comes to attack the cult of Dionysus.
      http://catholicityandcovenant.blogspot.com/2012/07/douthat-on-renewal-what-place-for.html

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    4. The social doctrine of the Church would certainly affirm a certain subservience of private property to the basic needs of society: "Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute and untouchable.....Private property, in fact, regardless of the concrete forms of the regulations and juridical norms relative to it, is in its essence only an instrument for respecting the principle of the universal destination of goods; in the final analysis, therefore, it is not an end but a means." (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 177) Furthermore, "The universal destination of goods entails obligations of how goods are to be used by their legitimate owners." (CSDC, 178).

      I seems to me that the difficultly arises in this discussion on what exactly "luxury" is. It is certainly not a word used by Jesus, St. Basil the Great, or Rerum Novarum. Is “luxury” equivalent to avarice? Is luxury something as simple as having two pillows when one only needs one? Or is it having a nice comfortable chair when a folding chair would do? Or must it always be something extreme like having a personal jet for fun? And to what extent is luxury dependent on culture? What may be considered luxurious in one culture may not be in another. It seems as if maybe a thorough definition of “luxury” would help determine if it fits the definition of a sin. For example, does “luxury” always and everywhere constitute a “failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods” (CCC 1849)?

      It seems like a further area that must necessarily be explored on this topic is to what extent is a person reasonably responsible for providing for the poor?

      I don’t presume to be an expert on the topic, but hopefully that helps in some way.

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  2. This is excellent, thank you!

    What was interesting to me today as I sat in mass and heard that gospel for the hundredth time was that for the first time ever, I thought "Jesus was calling him to the priesthood, specifically!" Now I know that the priesthood had not yet been established, but it wasn't that far off….

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