The terms rich and poor are used variously and often confusingly. They can differentiate material resources, from decided surplus to brutal destitution. They can also be used to address the inner life, and here you have to be a little savvy. For example, one who is “poor in spirit” is a humble person who could thereby also have inner wealth. Being poor in spirit is very different from having an impoverished soul.
Today’s Gospel story, in three short acts, reveals something of the relationship Christians ought to have with wealth and poverty. In act one, a wealthy man asks Jesus what he needs to do to inherit eternal life. When Jesus reminds him of the Commandments, he replies, “Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth.” Jesus looks at him lovingly and then says to him: “You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give it to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” The man leaves crestfallen, “for he had many possessions.”
In act two, Jesus tells his disciples that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. The disciples are astonished. In the Old Testament, wealth was typically portrayed as a blessing from God and proof that one was righteous. Now it appears to be one of the greatest liabilities.
In act three, Peter announces that they had given up everything to follow Jesus. Jesus assures them that anyone one who has given up houses and family for the sake of the Gospel will be repaid “a hundred times more now in this present age...and eternal life in the age to come.”
So, what exactly should our relationship to wealth and poverty be? This is not the sort of question that admits a pat answer. If poverty is a curse, then why would Jesus demand it of the rich man? If it is necessary, then why give it to the poor, making them presumably less poor? At least one thing should be obvious: pursuing material wealth at the expense of spiritual wealth is always bad.
Today’s first reading, from the Book of Wisdom, addresses this specifically: “I preferred her [wisdom] to scepter and throne, and deemed riches nothing in comparison to her.” It is also the case that Jesus’ historical mission was marked by itinerancy. He and his disciples were constantly on the move; to follow him on his mission meant literally to leave everything behind.
While this is not our situation today, we would do well to consider the aspiration of focusing on Jesus and his mission, as his disciples did who dropped everything to follow him unreservedly. We could consider that when our time, energy and even identity are tied up in pursuing material wealth, we have lost sight of the kingdom. Finally and most uncomfortably, we need to recognize that material wealth can insulate us from hearing the cry of the poor. St. John Chrysostom pointed out: “It is madness to fill our wardrobes full of clothes and to regard with indifference a human being—made in the image and likeness of God—who is naked.”
Consider this challenge, inspired by Peter Singer: You just bought a new pair of suede boots for $200 and you are walking by a pond where a toddler is drowning. You would not hesitate to dash into the water to save the child, even though this would ruin your boots. A child is more important than boots! Now consider the moment just before buying the boots, knowing that those $200 could feed a starving child. Do you buy the boots, or do you give the money to a charity that feeds starving children?
Where does a poverty calculus like this stop? Would you continue to give your money to the point of starving yourself? Should you liquidate your children’s college tuition fund to feed more starving children? Without collapsing into neurotic absorption about possessions or unhealthy guilt in having them, we could still ask ourselves: How much is enough? Am I hearing the cry of the poor?