How fitting that today, as the Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis, takes his leave of the richest country on earth…and in the history of the world…the second reading from today’s Mass is from James 5: 1-6:
You have lived on earth in luxury and pleasure; you have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter.
In fact, all of this passage has at one time or another in Francis’ Papacy been addressed by him and flung out to the world as a warning and as a criticism. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
And the world has flocked to him – Roman Catholics and non-Catholics alike. But his message, as some think, including the young man Jesus told to sell all, is a hard one. How are we to give up all we have and still live in this world? Does Francis, like St. Francis, really mean to give away our inheritance and live in hair shirts? Are we supposed to go without shoes, even in the winter? What about when we get old, if we haven’t “saved up” how will we live?
But if we look at the first reading and at the Gospel, we see a nuanced story that is at the heart of what Jesus taught, and what Francis is proclaiming.
I think what we are seeing here is more profound than simply saying “the poor are better than the rich.” I think we are examining how Jesus viewed what we love, not what we have. In both the reading and the Gospel, the Holy Spirit is giving us the message that we are all equal, we are all children of God, and whether we are officially entitled or we are acting on our own, if what we are doing is loving God and our neighbor as ourselves, we are following the word of God…and we will enter the Kingdom.
Isn’t our life a constant sizing up? We compare ourselves with each other, with celebrities, with kings and queens – and don’t we usually find ourselves wanting? Moses asked Joshua, “Are you jealous for my sake?” And in that question, we can see the hierarchy that Joshua, and probably the whole people of the Exodus, had formed in his mind and tried to enforce: There’s Moses, then Aaron, then the 70 Elders…then maybe Joshua, then the heads of households, then the male children, etc., etc. Everyone was to know his or her place and act accordingly. And anyone who got out of line was to be censured, and of course Joshua and the other top dogs would do the censuring or meet out the punishments. The big guys vs. the little guys, or the worthy vs. the lesser beings.
Didn’t we read in Wisdom 2:11 “But let our strength be our norm of righteousness; for weakness proves itself useless.”? Again and again, God is telling us that no one is more worthy than any other. But further on in Wisdom we read: “Let us lie in wait for the righteous one, because he is annoying to us; he opposes our actions, Reproaches us for transgressions of the law and charges us with violations of our training.” This is echoed in the second reading:
You have condemned; you have murdered the righteous one;
he offers you no resistance.
And of course Jesus is the real subject here. But so also is St. Francis, and Pope Francis, both of whom have been reviled for speaking the words God has said to us in the Bible. And so have most reformers and seekers of justice for all. Reviled and condemned because they are really kicking away the ladder so many of us stand on. The higher the rung, the closer to…to what? Heaven, the giant’s castle in the clouds, the envy of our neighbors?
It’s really a simple message: there is one God and then there are the rest of us. Scrambling up the ladder of wealth and prestige will get us no closer to him.
And so should we really sign over our bank accounts and have a yard sale of all our possessions and put that money in the poor box? I suppose we should, if that would remove the beam from our eye. Still, that’s the same line of thought in reverse: the less we have, the better we are. It still precludes infatuation with hierarchy and position.
So what is the real answer? We know what it is. 1 Timothy 6:10 alludes to it. “For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.”
The real answer is “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.”
Lord, today as we contemplate these words and think on the poor and suffering, help us to remember that simply loving them and showing them the love of God is what they need most. Then, with differences of wealth and position aside, and in a spirit of your servants, we can begin to bestow what riches we may have on those who need them.