912: Give me the wealth that makes it possible for you to give this diamond away so easily.
Day 912: Wednesday, September 14, 2022
Give me the wealth that makes it possible for you to give this diamond away so easily.
Solving Poverty, Solving Wealth
In 1982, after finishing my graduate work in theology, I moved to Colorado Springs and took a job at a parish. Within a few months, I encountered for the first time a living, breathing Catholic Worker community. I was just completely taken in by that community’s commitment to try to live a radical response to the Gospel. The community ran a hospitality house for men, women and children who were homeless, oversaw a soup kitchen that served 300 people each day, and witnessed to nonviolence (in the most militarized city in America) with public demonstrations and civil disobedience. So, I quit my job and joined the community.
That was a formative time for me as a young man, and it would set me on a path of what I thought was THE Gospel message for many decades. I have spent a big chunk of my life speaking to and trying to integrate one of the critical messages of Catholic social teaching, what is commonly referred to as the “option for the poor and vulnerable.” JustFaith was originally (and is today) a program designed to educate people—mostly privileged people—about the realities and root causes of domestic and international poverty and to inspire them to get involved in solutions.
Over the years, this commitment has linked me with some of the finest people I know, people working tirelessly on behalf of those impoverished, people like many of you who make extraordinary efforts on behalf of those who have been marginalized, exploited, abandoned and ignored. I have had the pleasure of working with national and local Catholic Charities, Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Campaign for Human Development, Bread for the World and the list goes on and on, I am grateful to say.
And, yet, our Gospel tradition reminds us that this commitment to address and eradicate poverty, as important as it is, is incomplete. Here is one reminder:
Then he told them a parable: “There was a wealthy man whose land yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I do not have sufficient space to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘This is what I will do. I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, where I will store my grain and other produce, and I shall say to myself, “Now you have an abundance of goods stored up for many years to come. Relax, eat, drink, and be merry.” ’
“But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be required of you. And who then will get to enjoy the fruit of your labors?’ That is how it will be for the one who stores up treasure for himself yet fails to become rich in the sight of God.”
Luke 12:16-21, sometimes described as “The Rich Fool,” is the story of a successful retirement plan. Business is good, the harvest is enormous, profits are saved—in fact, so much profit is saved that the rich man has to build a bigger bank, in this case a bigger barn. And the outcome is a happy man – “Relax. Eat, drink, and be merry.” If only the text had ended there. But the next line is “You fool.”
God is obviously not impressed
In her compelling book, The Problem of Wealth, Bellarmine University professor and theologian, Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty, makes the important observation that in the Gospels THE spiritual problem is not poverty. Poverty is certainly a problem; people not having enough food is not only a problem it’s a scandal and a crisis. That is why there are hundreds and thousands of organizations across the country and world trying to address the issue of poverty with countless and different strategies. But the main problem to be solved, according to the Gospels, is not poverty. The problem to be solved, says the Gospels, is wealth – affluence, hoarding, retirement silos and money barns.
So, while we should all be grateful that thousands and thousands of people and organizations are committed to solving poverty, we might also notice just how few organizations dedicate themselves to the problem of wealth. It’s not a favorite topic, not in our culture and certainly not in our churches.
This past July, one of the shining lights who understood well the problem of wealth passed away. I am thinking of the great evangelical, Ron Sider, who wrote the book, “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.” The book underwent a dozen or more editions, each time Sider working tirelessly to update the international and domestic statistics. He was accosted by seemingly every other evangelical theologian and many Protestants and Catholics to boot. It is NOT a topic that a capitalist, upwardly aspiring, consumer culture wants to hear.
Sider spent equal time in his book highlighting the crisis of poverty and hunger and the directly-related scandal of wealth. Sider and others like Professor Hinson-Hasty and Fr. John Kavanaugh, who wrote the book Following Christ in a Consumer Society, are essentially calling the bluff of the Prosperity Gospel and saying the exact opposite:
God does not want anyone wealthy, if we mean by “wealth” accumulated personal wealth. If anyone of us has more than enough and keep it to ourselves, we are walking in some kind of darkness. Is there a different way to read the Gospel without a lot of contorted explanation?
Now, like all things Scripture, there is a context which gives greater meaning to the text. Here is the context that I’d like to highlight. The PRIMARY problem with wealth is not greed. Yes, greed is a problem, but it is not the PRIMARY problem.
The primary problem is lost opportunity.
Set in the context of the Reign of God, true wealth is the abundance afforded by an overflow of loving relationships, a shared life with generosity abounding.
Think of a playground. All the swings and slides and bars are for everyone. On a good day, children of every nation and skin color are all enjoying themselves, waiting turns, taking pleasure in the happy commotion of being surrounded by playmates. This wealth—a commonwealth, if you will—is created by the sharing of things, space and mutual respect and reverence. Now, make your imagination apply this scenario to the world of adults, the worlds of commerce, economics and politics.
The invitation of faith is to invest ourselves in a world in which everyone gets to play: enough to eat, safe housing, satisfying work, clean air, clean water, and a chance to laugh, dance, and sing. Everyone invited. That’s it. A place to live life, to raise children if you like, to celebrate the wonder of nature, to enjoy each other. That’s it. No silos. No need to hoard. No need for massive IRAs, mammoth houses or exotic vacations. ‘Tis a gift to be simple.
Wealth, as lost opportunity, is simply love unrealized. The only reason, given by the Gospel, why some people experience wealth is so that we can make sure the surplus goes to where it’s needed.
Wealth is simply the condition of money coming our way that we are responsible to pass on to where it’s needed. The money is not mine. It’s ours. Actually, it’s God’s, intended for all, to be passed along.
And, when this happens, when this passing along—sharing--happens, both the problem of wealth and the problem of poverty are solvable. When this happens, when there is no hoarding, when there is a sharing unto justice, it’s then possible for the Reign of God to erupt. By none of us being privately wealthy, we all become collectively wealthy.
I will close with one of my favorite Anthony de Mello stories:
The old monk had reached the outskirts of the village and settled down under a tree for the night when a villager came running up to him and said, “The stone! The stone! Give me the precious stone!”
“What stone?” asked the old monk.
“Last night, a spirit appeared to me in a dream,” said the villager, “and told me that if I went to the outskirts of the village at dusk, I should find a monk who would give me a precious stone that would make me rich forever.”
The old monk rummaged in his bag and pulled out a stone. “He probably meant this one,” he said, as he handed the stone over to the villager. “I found it on a forest path some days ago. You can certainly have it.”
The villager gazed at the stone in wonder. It was a diamond, the largest he had ever seen. It was as large as his head.
He took the diamond and walked away. That night he tossed about in bed, unable to sleep. The next day at the crack of dawn he went back to monk, woke him from his sleep and said, “Give me the wealth that makes it possible for you to give this diamond away so easily.”
Jack Jezreel, the author, is the originator of the JustFaith program and founder of JustFaith Ministries.