Maybe Jesus’ message concerning our material wealth can be reduced to this: in the end it will be easier to have been poor than to have been rich — meaning that the more we own of money and material things, the harder it is to manage their use and distribution in a way that is consistent with the mind & heart of Jesus.
I have often heard people tell of the almost unbelievable charity of their parents as they struggled to make a place for themselves and their families here in America. They’d often end by saying, “But the nearly incredible thing was that, no matter how little we had, if my parents knew of someone who had less or nothing, somehow they always found a place for that poor person at our table.”
The spirit of poverty isn’t always found in the poor, but it seems to shine with special brilliance when we do find it there. On the other hand, I know many well-to-do persons, including close friends and members of my own family, who possess that same quality of almost unlimited generosity.
But I still think that it is much harder to manage what we have in a truly Christ-like way when we possess very much, when we are rich. The operative concept here is attachment. What we own is attractive and precious to us; in a way, it is like our offspring, our children. We love them; we don’t want to give them up, these material things that have become such important parts of our lives. We know we certainly don’t need them all; we also know that, while we are enjoying our luxuries, others are in desperate need and would be helped by our sharing more with them. But then we tell ourselves that we’ve come through hard times, too, and that what we have now we earned by the sweat of our brows and by our ingenuity and wise decisions and by taking some pretty big risks along the way.
It’s an on-going struggle, I know very well. I am confessing that it is in my life that the struggle goes on. I’m not judging others or accusing others of anything. The agonizing is my own: do I hold on to too much when others, near and far away, are dying for lack of food or water or housing and I am living so well? I don’t know for sure. And what am I asked or expected to do? I don’t always know that, either.
The nearest I can come to a resolution of this nagging problem is my conviction that we must at least cultivate a feeling, a sensitivity, for the plight of the poor and turn that into concrete action, no matter how small. True, none of us can save everyone in the world. We are limited in what we can do. I remember hearing the world-renowned theologian, the late Monika Hellwig, a friend of mine, say that, although we can be radical in all our thinking, we cannot possibly be radical in all our actions. We can reach only some of the many who need our help.
What if we turned to the wisdom of our Judeo Christian ancestors and pledged to give one tenth of our income to the needy poor? Tithing, that’s called. Or some other approximate percentage of our wealth?
It could be that that would be the first step toward a pattern of really Christ-like compassion toward persons in desperate, degrading, dehumanizing need. Who knows where that will lead? It certainly would put us into closer union with the compassionate Christ — and add peace to our own lives.