Thursday, November 20, 2008

Wealth & Poverty - Fr Edward Dowler

The Vice-Principal gave this homily at a Mass organised by one of the Tutor Groups at St Stephen's House on Wednesday 20th November 2008. The celebration was a Solemn Mass of the Holy Spirit with a particular intention to focus on the current financial situation:

The passage from St Mark’s gospel that we have just heard received two starkly different interpretations in second and third century Egypt. In a famous sermon on this text, entitled Quis dives saluetur (Who is the rich man who is to be saved?), St Clement of Alexandria argued confidently that Jesus’s advice to the rich young man that he should sell what he owns and give the money to the poor should be taken spiritually and not literally. ‘The Saviour’, says Clement, ‘has by no means excluded the rich on account of wealth itself...if they are able and willing to submit their life to God’s commandments, and prefer (those commandments) to transitory objects’. What is wrong, then, he asserts, is not having money, but being preoccupied with it.

A very contrasting line was taken by St Antony of Egypt some years later when, as his biographer, St Athanasius recounts, he went to church one day and heard the very same passage being proclaimed. For Antony, there could be no messing around with interpretations and spiritual meanings. Jesus had spoken plainly, in words that could only be taken one way and demanded action from all who heard them. Athanasius records that Antony, ‘as though the passage had been read on his account, went immediately from the church, and gave the possessions of his forefathers to the villagers...And all the rest that was movable he sold, and having got together much money he gave it to the poor.

The tension between these two very different views can be traced back, perhaps, to the New Testament itself. For, depending on where we look, we can find what seems to be a Clement of Alexandria-style realistic and pragmatic approach to financial questions in, for example, the parable of the talents, or perhaps that of the dishonest steward. But, on the other hand, if we look at the Magnificat, or the description in chapter 2 of Acts of the apostles selling their possessions and distributing the proceeds to the poor, things sound very much more radical. These passages remind us of Antony’s direct and literal take on Jesus’s words to the rich young man.

So, which way should we follow? Needless to say, in most parts of the church, Clement’s view has historically prevailed, even if it is perhaps less prominent in the New Testament. With some very important Antony-like exceptions, such as those who live in religious communities, Christians have tended to live pragmatically within the economic systems in which they’ve found themselves. For sure, theologians from the early Church up until today have stressed he importance of almsgiving, and of not investing too much of ourselves in our wealth and material possessions. But the Church has generally accepted the economic status quo, and tried to work within it, being content to temper its excesses and blunt the edge of its cruelty towards the very poorest.

A time of financial crisis, however, like the one that we’re currently experiencing may lead us to take another look. We’ve seen over the past few weeks the frailty of financial institutions, and the near breakdown of systems that many of us had assumed were robust and unassailable. Economic strength that seemed assured, and indeed almost our God-given right is suddenly revealed to be fragile and vulnerable, giving us a timely reminder of our creaturely frailty and dependence. We might echo the words of the Psalmist, in a passage which starts full of pride and hubris but ends in contrition and humility:

In my prosperity I said, I shall never be removed:
thou Lord, of thy goodness hast made my hill so strong.

Thou didst turn thy face from me: and I was troubled.

Then I cried unto thee, O Lord: and gat me to my Lord right humbly.

But even more than this, current financial circumstances might make us dissatisfied with simply accepting the economic order of the day, and inclined to raise our sights towards the life of the Kingdom of God. And in a way we are doing that here and now, because the new economic order of the Kingdom is inaugurated by Jesus in the Eucharist. For here admission depends not on financial strength, but on being in love and charity with our neighbour. In the economic order of the Eucharist and the Kingdom, there is radical equality, with the king and the pauper invited to eat the same food and drink the same drink. And in this order, to the question, how much is provided? God always answers, ‘just as much as is needed’.