Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Embracing Lady Poverty: 28th Sunday of Ordinary Time

St. Francis Wedding Lady Poverty
October 4th, this past Thursday, was the Feast of St. Francis of Assissi, and as you might imagine it was a big deal here at the Franciscan University of Steubenville.  The all-campus Mass was reverent and moving, and the festivities over the weekend, including the annual Medieval Festival, were full of good-natured merry-making.

One of the themes that always comes up in this yearly recollection of St. Francis is his radical embrace of poverty.  Together with St. Dominic, St. Francis helped establish the tradition of mendicant (begging) religious orders, that is, groups of religious men who owned no property and were dependent on the good will of others for their necessities.

St. Francis used to refer lovingly to "Lady Poverty," and said he learned a great deal from her.  The Readings for this Sunday's Mass also treat of the theme of poverty for the sake of the Good News and the Kingdom of God.

1. Our First Reading is from Wisdom 7:7-11:

I prayed, and prudence was given me;
I pleaded, and the spirit of wisdom came to me.
I preferred her to scepter and throne,
and deemed riches nothing in comparison with her,
nor did I liken any priceless gem to her;
because all gold, in view of her, is a little sand,
and before her, silver is to be accounted mire.
Beyond health and comeliness I loved her,
and I chose to have her rather than the light,
because the splendor of her never yields to sleep.
Yet all good things together came to me in her company,
and countless riches at her hands.
The Book of the Wisdom of Solomon (usually Wisdom for short) is one of the last books of the Old Testament to be written.  Composed in Greek, probably in Alexandria, Egypt, in the second or first century before Christ, the sacred author speaks with the voice of Solomon in order to teach about the nature of divine Wisdom.

In today's Reading, Solomon emphasizes the divine origin of wisdom: it is the gift of God given through prayer.  This is a healthy antidote to our contemporary mentality that views knowledge as something built up purely through reason and observation, usually through the practice of the natural or social sciences.  Sciences have their role, but history is replete with examples of science being used in very unwise ways.  True wisdom is something beyond our merely human capacities.  It's not something we can create or manipulate.  Ultimately we must seek and accept it from God.

Solomon emphasizes that nothing is comparable to Wisdom, and all riches, gems, gold and silver are as nothing compared to her.  Solomon's statements are setting us up for a better appreciation of the Gospel, in which Jesus will call the rich young man to give up everything in order to follow him.  The combination of these Readings helps us to identify Jesus as Wisdom personified, Wisdom incarnate.

The personification of divine Wisdom in this Old Testament book is an example of what we call progressive revelation.  The truth about God and the world becomes clearer in the Bible as we progress from Genesis to Revelation.  In earlier books, there were hints of multiple personhood in God, but in the Wisdom of Solomon, God's Wisdom takes shape as a unique Person in addition to God Himself.  The doctrine of the Trinity is beginning to be revealed.  Solomon's Lady Wisdom is, in some senses, a pre-image of Jesus Christ, and in other senses, of the Holy Spirit.  Since Christ is anointed with the Holy Spirit and they share the same mission, this one Old Testament image (Lady Wisdom) may rightly be applied to both or either.

In the Book of Wisdom, Solomon describes having a spousal relationship to Lady Wisdom: he marries her and she becomes his wife.  This spousal image is quite applicable to our relationship with Christ.  When one gets married, one needs to be ready to abandon everything for the sake of one's spouse.  The Genesis 2 reading from last week hinted at this truth: "For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother," that is, his home and all that is familiar and comfortable, "and cleave to his wife" (Gen 2:24).  This radical leaving-and-cleaving to one's spouse is similar to the conversion that Jesus calls us to in the Gospel: to leave all and cling to him.

2. The Responsorial Psalm is Psalm 90:12-13, 14-15, 16-17:
R. (14) Fill us with your love, O Lord, and we will sing for joy!
Teach us to number our days aright,
that we may gain wisdom of heart.
Return, O LORD! How long?
Have pity on your servants!
R. Fill us with your love, O Lord, and we will sing for joy!
Fill us at daybreak with your kindness,
that we may shout for joy and gladness all our days.
Make us glad, for the days when you afflicted us,
for the years when we saw evil.
R. Fill us with your love, O Lord, and we will sing for joy!
Let your work be seen by your servants
and your glory by their children;
and may the gracious care of the LORD our God be ours;
prosper the work of our hands for us!
Prosper the work of our hands!
R. Fill us with your love, O Lord, and we will sing for joy!
The key line that explains the link of this Psalm with the rest of the readings is in vv. 12-13: "Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart."  To "number our days aright" means to know how to spend our time well, to be able to recognize what is worthwhile to expend our efforts on, and what is just a waste. 

Psalm 90 is the only psalm attributed to Moses.  Read with Moses' authorship in mind, the psalm seems to reflect the melancholy—although not despairing—situation of Moses near the end of his life.  As we recall from reading the story of Moses life and ministry in Exodus through Deuteronomy, Moses met with a great deal of frustration.  His central mission—to get Israel into the Promised Land—was never accomplished.  At the end of his life, he expresses an attitude very similar to the First Reading, namely, a humble dependence on God, and an acknowledgement that wisdom is a gift of God, beyond unaided human power. Having been frustrated in his own efforts to "make" things happen, Moses entrusts himself and his people completely to divine providence.

3.  The Second Reading is Hebrews 4:12-13:
Brothers and sisters:
Indeed the word of God is living and effective,
sharper than any two-edged sword,
penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow,
and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart.
No creature is concealed from him,
but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him
to whom we must render an account.
Note here how the Word of God is personified: "no creature is concealed from him."  The Word of God of which the author of Hebrews is, in one sense, the Scriptures, but more profoundly, it is Jesus Christ, the Word of God in flesh.  The "penetrating" power of Jesus the Word of God reminds us of the "penetrating" power of divine Wisdom (Wis 7:23): ultimately they are one and the same reality, one and the same Person.  In the Gospel, we are going to see Jesus with this "penetrating" assessment of the Rich Man.  Jesus will "see through" the Rich Man, discern his real motivations and the real "thoughts of his heart," and call him out.  All of us, too, often experience Jesus in this way, when he confronts us with Truth as we read the Gospels. 

Gospel Mk 10:17-30

As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up,
knelt down before him, and asked him,
"Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
Jesus answered him, "Why do you call me good?
No one is good but God alone.
Jesus is pressing this man: "What do you mean by 'good teacher'?  Do you not realize that God alone is good?  Are you then acknowledging my divinity?"  So we see that at the beginning of this story, one of the major issues is the identity of Christ: who is this 'good teacher'?  Jesus is ultimately going to ask the Rich Man to do something that was acceptable in Judaism only for the sake of God and specifically the study of God's law, namely, to abandon everything to devote oneself to it. 

You know the commandments: You shall not kill;
you shall not commit adultery;
you shall not steal;
you shall not bear false witness;
you shall not defraud;
honor your father and your mother."
He replied and said to him,
"Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth."

Interestingly, Jesus cites only the commandments from the "second table" of the Law, that is, from those laws concerning horizontal relationships, relationships with other people.  The "first table" of the Law, with the commands concerning one's relationship with God, Jesus omits at this point.  The Rich Man claims to have observed the second table, and Jesus accepts his claim so far as it goes.  But this is not yet enough for eternal life; one most also keep the commandments concerning God.  So Jesus now moves on to these commandments, expressed as follows:

Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him,
"You are lacking in one thing.
Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor
and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."
At that statement his face fell,
and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.

In the Old Testament, giving to the poor was a way to worship God: "He who is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will repay him for his deed" (Prov. 19:17).  So both the giving to the poor and the following of Jesus are acts of worship toward God, matters of the "first table" of the Law.

"Discerning the thoughts and reflections of the heart," Jesus perceives that the Rich Man has another god in his heart: wealth or "Mammon."  “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Mammon" (Matt. 6:24).  Jesus calls the Rich Man to slay his false god, Wealth, and to "love the LORD your God with all your heart, soul, and strength," (cf. Deut 6:5), the first commandment of the first table, by following Jesus, who is the LORD, the One who is Good.  
Jesus looked around and said to his disciples,
"How hard it is for those who have wealth
to enter the kingdom of God!"
The disciples were amazed at his words.
In Judaism in antiquity, it was often only the wealthy who had the means scrupulously to keep all the commands of the Old Testament, which required frequent washings and sacrifices to maintain purity.  The wealthy had ritual baths in their homes, and the means to pay for frequent sacrifices.  The poor did not have these resources, and lived in an almost constant state of impurity as a result.  Furthermore, wealth was considered a sign of God's blessing, as in the case of Abraham.  So Jesus teaching that the wealthy would have difficulty entering the kingdom of God was quite contrary to the disciples' expectations.
So Jesus again said to them in reply,
"Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!
It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle
than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."
They were exceedingly astonished and said among themselves,
"Then who can be saved?"
Jesus looked at them and said,
"For human beings it is impossible, but not for God.
All things are possible for God."
Peter began to say to him,
"We have given up everything and followed you."
Jesus said, "Amen, I say to you,
there is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters
or mother or father or children or lands
for my sake and for the sake of the gospel
who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age:
houses and brothers and sisters
and mothers and children and lands,
with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come."
Here Jesus describes the blessings of those who do abandon all to follow Jesus.  The "houses and brothers and sisters etc." that these followers will gain in this life is a reference to the Church.  We leave our natural family, only to discover that we are now part of a spiritual family much bigger than the natural one we left, namely the Church, the family of God.  We probably all have experienced this reality in a profound way at some point in our lives.  In my own life, I particularly remember traveling to Juarez, Mexico, in 2007 to speak on the theme of "Jubilee" for celebrations associated with the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Diocese of Juarez.  Surrounded by strangers and not speaking scarcely a word of Spanish, I was nonetheless struck by how "at home" I felt with my fellow Catholics there, especially at Mass.  If Jesus was there, we were all at home, all brothers and sisters.

I am profoundly grateful that in the Catholic Church there remains a form, structure, and tradition for the literal obedience to Christ's command to leave all wealth and family connections to follow him, namely, the religious life.  Protestantism has largely abandoned the literal heeding of Christ's command in this regard.  The Church's religious, both brothers and sisters, are a profound gift that influence the lives also of us laity who are not called to the same mode of following Christ.  For example, it makes a tremendous difference in my own outlook that the man I go to for confession and spiritual direction himself lives out poverty, obedience, and celibate chastity.  It puts my own relatively small acts of self-denial in perspective: they are small.

Nonetheless, the call of Jesus to give up everything to follow him also applies to the common laity.  Although we still live in the world, and need a certain amount of wealth to raise our families, etc., nonetheless there are ways to live poverty.  So I would like to close with a rather lengthy quote from St. Josemaria Escriva, a passage in which he gives some of the best advice and perspective on living detachment from Mammon as a lay person:
Many years ago, twenty-five and more, I used to visit an eating place run by a charitable group for the benefit of beggars who were so poor that their only food each day was the meal they were given there. There was a large canteen looked after by a number of kind women. After the first meal was served, more beggars would come in to finish off the leftovers. Among this second group of beggars one man in particular attracted my attention. He was the proud owner of... a pewter spoon! He would take it carefully out of his pocket, look at it covetously and, after he had downed his meager ration, he would look at the spoon again with eyes that seemed to exclaim: 'It's mine!' Next he would lick it a couple of times to clean it and then, with deep satisfaction, would hide it away again in the folds of his tattered garment. True enough, the spoon was his! Here was a wretchedly poor beggar who, among his companions in misfortune, thought himself to be rich.

Around that same time I knew a titled lady who belonged to the Spanish aristocracy. In the eyes of God such a thing counts for nothing. We are all equal, all of us are children of Adam and Eve, weak creatures with virtues and defects, and capable all of us, if Our Lord abandons us, of committing the worst crimes imaginable. Ever since Christ redeemed us there are no distinctions of race, language, color, birth, or wealth: we are all children of God. This lady of whom I have just been speaking lived in an ancestral mansion. But she spent next to nothing on herself. On the other hand she paid her servants very well and gave the rest of her money to the needy, while depriving herself of almost everything. This lady had many of the goods which so many people are anxious to obtain but she personally was poor, given to mortification and completely detached from everything. Am I making myself clear? In any event, all we need do is listen to the words of Our Lord: 'Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.'

If you want to achieve this spirit, I would advise you to be sparing with yourself while being very generous towards others. Avoid unnecessary expenditure on luxuries and comforts, whether out of caprice, or vanity, etc. Don't create needs for yourself. In other words, learn from St Paul 'to live in poverty and to live in abundance, to be filled and to be hungry, to live in plenty and to live in want: I can do all things in him who comforts me'. Like the Apostle, we too will come out winners in this spiritual combat if we keep our hearts unattached and free from ties.
  (—St. Josemaria Escriva, from the sermon "Detachment" in the book, Friends of God, chapter 123)

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