Thursday, October 24, 2013

What Does it Mean to Be Poor? The 30th Sunday in OT

Several years ago, an experiment was done in which three American families were taken to a remote part of the Midwest and left to survive with few belongings and 19th century technology (horse-drawn plows, etc.) for a year.  

As I recall, two families were able to persevere through the year without being rescued, and at the end of it, they returned to their twentith-century lives, with video games, TV, etc.

When interviewed a year after the end of the experiment, almost to a person the family members agreed that the year "in the past" had been very difficult, but they were happier during that year than they were now.  

Which raises the question: what is true poverty?  Were the participants poorer during the experiment, or in their present lives?

The Readings for this Sunday take up the question of true poverty, and the Gospel reading puts a "spin" on the previous three Scriptures.
1.  Our First Reading is Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18:

The LORD is a God of justice,
who knows no favorites.
Though not unduly partial toward the weak,
yet he hears the cry of the oppressed.
The Lord is not deaf to the wail of the orphan,
nor to the widow when she pours out her complaint.
The one who serves God willingly is heard;
his petition reaches the heavens.
The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds;
it does not rest till it reaches its goal,
nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds,
judges justly and affirms the right,
and the Lord will not delay.

Sirach appears infrequently in the Sunday lectionary—only seven times over three years.  The last time was about two months ago, on the 22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time.

The canonical placement of Sirach at the end of the wisdom books indicates that the Church views it, with good reason, as a kind of climax or summation of the wisdom literature tradition.  Sirach both summarizes and expands the teaching found in earlier wisdom books, and integrates into the Wisdom perspective three important themes or elements of Israel’s tradition that the earlier books did not treat extensively: the Law, the liturgy, and salvation history.

Earlier wisdom literature, particularly Proverbs, paid little attention to liturgical worship and the sacrificial cult at the Jerusalem Temple.   In Sirach, however, Lady Wisdom is said to have taken up her abode in Israel’s sanctuary: first in the Tabernacle, then in the Temple (ch. 24).  Moreover, the encomia of Israel’s great heroes of faith (Sir 44-49) concludes with the grand description of high priest Simon II celebrating the sacrificial ritual of the Day of Atonement in all his vested glory (ch. 51), suggesting that the Wisdom evident in the lives of all Israel’s “famous men” truly finds its embodiment and climactic expression in the ministry of the High Priest in the Temple.

Sirach’s insistence on the close relationship of Wisdom to the Liturgy may seem counter-intuitive at first, but it is in fact a natural outworking of the fundamental insight from early wisdom literature that “the Fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.”  “Fear of the LORD” is an idiom expressing religious reverence, which is broader than, but certainly includes, liturgical worship.  In the Liturgy, we acknowledge and orient ourselves toward our true end or telos, which is God himself.  The God-ward orientation that the Liturgy affects in us is essential for Wisdom, because without proper orientation to our true end, we cannot make adequate judgments about the value of the temporal things of this world.  The relationship between the Liturgy and wisdom is well-illustrated in Ps. 73, where the psalmist struggles to understand the problem of evil, and cannot do so until he enters into the place of worship: “But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I perceived their end” (73:16-17).  Only within the context of worship of God does the psalmist understand the true destiny of the righteous and the wicked, which enables him to continue to make proper moral judgments in daily life.  Liturgy informs the intellect and shapes the worldview necessary to gain insight into the true nature of things and moral quality of actions.

This Sunday’s Reading comes from the section of Sirach dealing with advice to the mature (i.e. no longer young) man (chs. 24-43), and from a subsection (34:18–35:20) dealing with the relationship of morality and liturgy.  Sirach drives home the point that participation in the liturgy (worship, sacrifice, etc.) does not somehow “compensate” for committing injustice and otherwise leading a vicious life (34:18-22).  At the same time, living a morally good life does not excuse oneself from the obligation to worship (35:4-12), and the Lord will be generous with those who show him honor in the sanctuary. 

The verses we read this Sunday (35:12-18) discuss the effectiveness of the prayers of various oppressed or disadvantaged persons.  The kind of prayer envisioned here is prayer offered in the Temple, because Sirach has been discussing the importance of frequenting the sanctuary to offer worship, sacrifice, and prayer.  The weak of the community who enter God’s sanctuary to call to him for justice, will be heard by God!  Sirach listens five categories: the oppressed, the orphan, the widow, the willing worshiper, and the lowly.  Those who belong to one of these groups may take consolation in the assurance of the attentiveness of God.

2. Our Responsorial Psalm is Ps 34:2-3, 17-18, 19, 23:

R. (7a) The Lord hears the cry of the poor.
I will bless the LORD at all times;
his praise shall be ever in my mouth.
Let my soul glory in the LORD;
the lowly will hear me and be glad.
R. The Lord hears the cry of the poor.
The LORD confronts the evildoers,
to destroy remembrance of them from the earth.
When the just cry out, the Lord hears them,
and from all their distress he rescues them.
R. The Lord hears the cry of the poor.
The LORD is close to the brokenhearted;
and those who are crushed in spirit he saves.
The LORD redeems the lives of his servants;
no one incurs guilt who takes refuge in him.
R. The Lord hears the cry of the poor.

The Hebrew superscript of Psalm 34 reads, “A Psalm of David, when he feigned madness before Abimelech, so that he drove him out, and he went away.”  So the context of this Psalm is an event in which David himself was reduced to helplessness.  In the court of Abimelech, he was defenseless and vulnerable, compelled to feign insanity just to escape with his life.  David, the poor man, encourages all others who are lowly to do as he did: cry out to the LORD for justice and salvation.  Verse 19 is particularly vivid: the Hebrew reads, “Near is the LORD to the smashed-of-heart, and the crushed-of-spirit he saves.”

3.  Our Second Reading is 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18:

I am already being poured out like a libation,
and the time of my departure is at hand.
I have competed well; I have finished the race;
I have kept the faith.
From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me,
which the Lord, the just judge,
will award to me on that day, and not only to me,
but to all who have longed for his appearance.

At my first defense no one appeared on my behalf,
but everyone deserted me.
May it not be held against them!
But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength,
so that through me the proclamation might be completed
and all the Gentiles might hear it.
And I was rescued from the lion's mouth.
The Lord will rescue me from every evil threat
and will bring me safe to his heavenly kingdom.
To him be glory forever and ever. Amen.

The Second Reading continues it’s progress through St. Paul’s letters to individuals, and we find ourselves in 2 Timothy again this week, often thought to be St. Paul’s letter, because the passage selected as our Reading seems to reflect St. Paul’s final (unsuccessful) trial before the emperor Nero. 

St. Paul writes to Timothy with heavy heart.  He is being “poured out,” and he senses his death is near.  All human consolation is gone—like Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, St. Paul finds himself deserted by even his closest friends in his hour of greatest need.  Yet paradoxically, St. Paul is also buoyed up spiritually in this crisis, sensing the “nearness to the smashed-of-heart” of which David spoke: “the Lord stood by me and gave me strength.”  So despite his chains, imprisonment, and imminent death sentence, St. Paul concludes on a note of confidence: “The Lord will rescue me … and bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom.”

So we see a profound resonance between these first three Readings, all of which dwell on the theme of the poor/oppressed person who cries out to God for justice and salvation.

4.  The Gospel is Luke 18:9-14:

We are nearing the end of Luke’s Travel Narrative.  Jesus is only one chapter away from arriving in Jerusalem.  The end of his public ministry is near, and his teaching becomes pointed.

Jesus addressed this parable
to those who were convinced of their own righteousness
and despised everyone else.
“Two people went up to the temple area to pray;
one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector.
The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself,
‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity --
greedy, dishonest, adulterous – or even like this tax collector.
I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’

We notice that these two men go to the Temple to pray.  This is the situation reflected in the First Reading, where Sirach describes the kind of persons whose prayers are heard when they go to the sanctuary. 

Next, we notice that the “prayer” of the Pharisee is scarcely a prayer at all.  Jesus says, “He spoke this prayer to himself.”  Indeed!  He didn’t speak it to God.  The Pharisee is virtually praying to himself, because his “prayer” is neither a supplication nor a praise of God.  It’s primarily a doxology of himself.

‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity --
greedy, dishonest, adulterous – or even like this tax collector.
I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’

At the same time, we need to recognize that greed, dishonesty, and adultery are serious sins that alienate one from God: the Pharisee does well to avoid them.  Furthermore, it is a virtue to fast, and to tithe on one’s income.  It is not in any of these things that the Pharisee does wrong.  No, his sole sin—that we can observe—is pride.  He practices virtue for the sake of his own ego, not out of love for God.

But the tax collector stood off at a distance
and would not even raise his eyes to heaven
but beat his breast and prayed,
'O God, be merciful to me a sinner.'
I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former;
for whoever exalts himself will be humbled,
and the one who humbles himself will be exalted."

Now this would be truly shocking to Jesus’ original audience, because tax collectors tended to be unscrupulous crooks who impoverished other citizens, lived in luxury, kept company with prostitutes, and collaborated with the hated Roman oppressors.  None of us would have like tax collectors if we had lived in Jesus’ day.  It’s hard to come up with an equivalent category today, but perhaps drug dealers would be roughly analogous.

How can a drug dealer go home justified over a fasting, tithing, church-goer?  Because of humility.

Here’s where things get interesting: the first two Readings and the Psalm emphasized that God hears the poor and oppressed.  But when we get to the Gospel, the man who’s prayer is heard is neither poor (he was probably wealthy) nor oppressed (if anything, he had done some oppressing) from any external point of view!  So that brings us back to our initial question:  what is true poverty?

It seems that Jesus is teaching us that true poverty—the kind that causes God to take heed to our prayers—is poverty of spirit or spiritual humility.  Oftentimes, material poverty and spiritual poverty go hand in hand, because the materially poor know they are weak in every way, and may even experience interior suffering due to the thought that God is punishing them for their sins.  Nonetheless, Jesus shows in the parable that spiritual poverty does not always track with external destitution.  The wealthy can be poor in spirit, when they humble themselves and repent. 

It would be a mistake to draw from this Gospel the lesson that honesty, generosity, purity, fasting and tithing are all worthless, and that we can extort money from the poor to enrich ourselves provided we adopt a humble attitude when we enter Church.

Instead, Jesus is contrasting the “rich in spirit”—those who think they have it all together in the supernatural realm—with the “poor in spirit”: those who recognize they are sinners in abject need of God’s mercy.

The Pharisee in this parable could have gone away justified as well, if he had simply humbled himself, asked for continued strength, and praised God rather than himself.

Furthermore, the parable implies that the tax collector’s prayer was sincere, in which case we may trust that it was followed by concrete acts of repentance, such as we see in Zachaeus’ life (Luke 19:8). 

So from whatever angle we approach the Gospel this week, whether we be church-goers who fast and tithe, or whether we be repentant rascals who’ve committed obvious and well-recognized sins, the message is the same: humble yourself so that God may exalt you.  When we stand before God, all of us are poor, widowed, orphaned, without wealth or merit.  Those that recognize this fact are the “poor of spirit” (Matt 5:3), but God’s Word assures us that He is close to us when we adopt this posture, and he will grant us “justice”—not merely in the sense of giving us justice against those oppress us, but also in the sense of giving us the gift of  His justice, so that we ourselves may be just persons, with a justice not our own but from God (Phil 3:9).


Louis said...

Always enlightening! Thank you Dr. Bergsma.
To the five categories, I might even add the first one mentioned: "The weak", but maybe that is best lumped in with the oppressed.

Thank again for your invaluable service to the Church!

Luke said...

Thank you so much Dr. Bergsma for your insights each week. I love them and can't share them fast enough. May God continue to bless you and your family.


Myshkin said...

Why, pray tell, does the USCCB insist on using the namby-pamby "I have competed well" in 2 Tim 4:7? I have before me my Ignatius Study Bible, my Ignatius Bible, my Douay-Rheims-Challoner, "Catholic Scripture Study" Bible from Saint Benedict Press, my Navarre Bible, my New American Bible, and The New Jerusalem -- all of them, without exception, give this passage as "I have fought the good fight." Honestly, I had thought that the Lectionary had stopped with the political correctness that to this day plagues us with substitutions of "God" for the masculine pronoun in the Psalms, etc. Why is 2 Tim 4:7 still being rendered "I have competed well"? Why? This is exasperating.

John Bergsma said...

I have no idea what the explanation for that translation is. --John Bergsma