13th Sunday: Year B
St. Joseph’s Church
There has always been a certain admiration for people who, in imitation of Jesus, embrace a lifestyle of radical poverty. We think of our regard for saints like Mother Teresa, Francis of Assisi and Charles de Foucault. Their radicality strikes us. But there is a risk that while admiring them we don’t feel we have to imitate them. After all, not everyone has that calling to literally sell all their goods and go to a desert or set up a new religious community or tend to the poorest of the poor in Kalkutta.
So, how does poverty work for the rest of us? The second reading today is a helpful guide. St. Paul is writing to the Christians of the city of Corinth. We know this was quite a well-to-do city. And the Christians there were well endowed not only in terms of finance but it seems they were also gifted in a lively faith community with many gifts of the Spirit, ministries and numbers. Jerusalem had the previous year been through a famine and the Christian community there had used up its resources so that it now found itself in a situation of poverty, so St. Paul is encouraging the Corinthians to hold a collection in order to share with the Christians in Jerusalem, the mother city of the newly born Church. In order to encourage them, Paul makes important points that explains how poverty works for Christians.
First, he reminds us that the example of Jesus is valid for all of us. Jesus was God, rich in everything and yet, being generous, Jesus made himself poor in order to share with us the life of God. Jesus gives us the great example of “giving”. God gave us his Son, Jesus gave us himself and the gifts he was bringing, including healing as we read in the Gospel.
Second. St. Paul emphasises that Jesus’ poverty was an expression of generosity directed towards sharing and unity among us. It wasn’t poverty simply for poverty’s sake. Poverty doesn’t mean misery. Poverty is with a view to building community. We know that the Acts of the Apostles describes the First Christian community when it says: “no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common”. Through this collection, not only would the Corinthians be sharing but they would be establishing a new bond them, a community made up of Pagan converts and the Jerusalem community that has originated mostly among the Jewish community.
Third, St. Paul uses the word “balance”. The point for St. Paul is that there should be a certainly equality within and among the Christian communities. We see this elsewhere in Paul’s writings. He’s shocked that some Christian can have surpluses while the others who are part of their community were in radical need. Sharing is about equality in the community. But he also promotes common sense. I think it’s linked with what St. Paul says elsewhere: “love your neighbour as yourself”. Each of us has personal needs and we bear personal responsibilities for the needs of our families etc. It’s not that we have to deprive ourselves to the point of impacting negatively on our own personal and family responsibilities (though we do find cases of heroic generosity in individuals). The point is that we should be ready to share from our surplus.
I’ve always been struck by the image of a plant. It draws from the earth what it needs for its growth and sustenance, no more, no less.
So these are three points to remember: be generous like Jesus; remember that sharing is with a view to building community and when making your calculations balance what happens to be your surplus now against the need of others. Of course, this isn’t just about financial goods. We have many goods we can share – our talents and competencies, our time and knowledge, our help and advice….
We are seeing in this reading some key points that will development in the history of the Church. Christians believe in the right of private property. We are not communists. The right of ownership is important. But it is not absolute. Christians also believe in the principle of the universal destination of good. God sees us as one family, sharing our goods. So while we may have private property we cannot simply use it just for ourselves. It has been said that there is always a social mortgage on all private property, in order that goods may serve the general purpose that God gave them.
Writing to people who were sharing with others in need, St. Ambrose reminded them: ‘You are not making a gift of what is yours to the poor man, but you are giving him back what is his. You have been appropriating things that are meant to be for the common use of everyone. The earth belongs to everyone, not to the rich’ (De nubate, c. 12, n. 53).
What matters is to give. St. Paul quotes the Book of Exodus: The person who gathered much had none too much, the person who gathered little did not go short. Even in small ways. A woman yesterday told me of a small experience. She realised her sister-in-law really liked a pendant she owned. It occurred to her many she could give it to her as a gift. But immediately felt – ah no, it’s mine… But then she took the step and sent it as a gift. She said she felt a huge inner peace and joy in doing this.
Interestingly, someone once wrote to the poet George Manley Hopkins asking how he could come to know God. Hopkins wrote back with the simple answer: ‘Give alms.’