As anyone who goes to Sunday Mass regularly or as anyone who reads the bible frequently knows, God is consistently said to identify more with the poor than with the rich. I believe that words indicating God’s preferential alliance with the poor over the rich don’t get beyond the ears of most of us.
But consider today’s reading from the prophet Zephaniah: he was talking to the ragtag nation of Israel that was getting more & more weary over their long years of debasing, almost hopeless, poverty. His advice was not that the people rise up against their oppressors but that they live with deliberate humility, uncompromised justice, doing no wrong, never lying or practicing deceit. The result, the prophet said, would be that they would be sheltered by God and once again pasture their flocks in peace and security.
Think also about St. Paul’s reminder to the newly baptized Christians in the city of Corinth, Greece, that we heard about in the second reading just minutes ago. They were inclined to regard themselves as the elite branch of the Christian community, “Big City” celebrities. Paul has the courage to hold a mirror up to them inviting them to acknowledge that most of them were of lowly birth and of low esteem in a sophisticated world.
In the Gospel passage appointed for today’s liturgy, Jesus challenges human wisdom and logic by calling fortunate those people who find themselves impoverished, disenfranchised, victimized.
What are we to make of such statements that at first seem so confusing and unacceptable?
Maybe the message is this: that those who commune with the God within them are actually rich beyond measure. The danger of material riches and power is that they can easily obscure the greater treasure, the presence of the Spirit of God. Wealth can absorb our interest and our time & energy and ultimately limit our personal goals to the merely material. Every day’s tabloid newspapers are filled with the stories of such misguided persons.
On the other hand, the blessing of poverty can be that it moves us to seek the real riches, the ones that last forever and never stop giving joy and peace, because their value goes far beyond the material.
Now, before I say another word about the theme of today’s scripture lessons, I confess again that I am not poor in material ways. I have a modest but beautiful home, a good car, plenty to eat and drink, money in my pocket and savings for the future. It was never my understanding that Jesus expected that we would give up all possessions and live either in hovels or as beggars on the street. I have read what I deemed to be responsible articles supporting the claim that he himself was of the middle class, such as it was in his day. His father was a small business man, a carpenter; his mother was a dedicated home-maker, as far as can be known.
But the word poverty has to be defined thoughtfully because there are many ways to be poor. Poverty doesn’t always mean the absence of material wealth; it can mean rather how we use and manage whatever it is that we own. It means living the spirit of poverty by giving generously to persons whom we recognize to be in dire need. It means not piling up wealth of any kind far, far beyond what we really need — and what we need may certainly include the objects of our artistic desires. Poverty also is expressed in our sharing with others our time, our gifts and talents, our compassionate presence, and — yes — our material wealth.
It is the gift of our Christian faith that makes sense of it all:
Faith — the basis of the friendship we share with countless others in mutual support.
Faith — strength for life’s most painful crises, even drawing new life from them.
Faith — the language of a never-ending conversation and communion with God.
Faith — the flawless compass of our lives.
Blessed are you, Jesus says, whatever your poverty may be. Just think how rich you are!