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If You Truly Want to Have Something, Lose It – A Mediation on the Economics of the Kingdom

August 10, 2017 0 Comments

St. Lawrence Distributing Alms, Fra Angelico

The Feast of St. Lawrence, deacon and martyr, contains an important teaching on the economics of the Kingdom of God. As you might guess, they are quite paradoxical. The teachings come to us both through St. Lawrence’s life and the particular readings selected for his feast.

When a persecution broke out in Rome in 257 A.D. (under Valerian), the Prefect of Rome suspected that the Church had a great fortune hidden away. He ordered Lawrence to bring the Church’s treasure to him. Lawrence promised to do so in three days’ time. Then, going through the city, he gathered together all the poor and sick supported by the Church.

When the Prefect arrived, Lawrence presented them, saying, “This is the Church’s treasure.” In great anger, the Prefect condemned Lawrence to a cruel death: He was tied to an iron grill and gradually roasted over a slow fire. The Lord gave Lawrence so much strength that he is said to have quipped, “Turn me over; I’m done on this side.”

The first economics lesson comes from Lawrence’s response to the Prefect of Rome’s demand: In the Kingdom of God, the most important things aren’t things at all. People—especially the poor, afflicted, and needy—are precious to God. It is our awareness of our own poverty, neediness, and sickness that unlocks the mercy and grace of God.

The second lesson comes from the reading for the Feast of St. Lawrence: If you want to truly have something, give it away.

St. Paul writes,

Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. … As it is written: “He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.” The one who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed and increase the harvest of your righteousness (2 Cor. 9:6, 9-10).

Note the promise that if we are generous in sowing the seed of alms to the poor, we will have more, not less. In effect, the Lord teaches that if He can trust us with a small matter like money, He can trust us with larger ones such as the graces that lead to righteousness.

Further, the implied reasoning is that if God can count on us to use something like money well (in accordance with His call to generosity), then He will entrust us with even more money (often giving us more). If we give, God will multiply what we have so that we can give even more. This applies to both money and holiness.

This is also taught in both Luke’s and Matthew’s Gospels:

  • Give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. (Luke 6:38)
  • Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Mat 6:20-21)

We may wonder how we can store treasure in Heaven. Do we send it up in a balloon or a rocket? Surely not. No, we put it in the hands of the poor! In this way, it is stored up in Heaven. Thus Jesus advises,

And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings (Luke 16:9).

Worldly wealth will fail us. When it does and our judgment day comes, the needy and poor whom we have assisted will welcome us and tell the Lord to be merciful in judging us. The Lord hears the cries, prayers, and recommendations of the poor. In this world, the poor need us, but in the next (especially on judgment day), we will need them. We are well advised to be generous to the poor, for God rewards us not merely with more money, but with righteousness, which is the only wealth that matters on judgment day.

The Lord also warns,

One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? (Luke 16:10-12)

Do you want to really have something? Give it away in love; if you are faithful unto the end, it will be yours for eternity. Indeed, it will multiply your fruitfulness. It is what we give away that we truly have. This is what Jesus means when He says, Whoever has will be given more, but whoever does not have, even what he thinks he has will be taken away from him (Lk 8:18).

How different and paradoxical all this is to our worldly thinking, which too easily thinks of wealth as a zero-sum game: if I give something away, I no longer have it. The Lord, however, refutes that. He says that if you give something away, then you truly have it. Doing so shows that He can trust us; He will respond by multiplying our life, perhaps with grater abundance, but surely with righteousness.

The third lesson comes from the Gospel for the Feast of St. Lawrence: What is true with our wealth is also true regarding our very life.

Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life (Jn 12:24-25).

Here is another paradox. Do you really want your life? Is so, then lose it. Die to your present self so that you can become your true self. Stop clinging to your worldly notions about what your life should be about: wealth, power, beauty, popularity. Die to that and rise to something far greater than you could ever ask for or imagine yourself to be. Your greatness is in knowing God and inn being caught up in a deep union with Him.

To attain this, however, you must be as willing to fall to the earth like a seed and die to your current self; then you can rise to something far more glorious. Consider the tiny acorn: It can only become a mighty oak if it falls to the earth and dies to being a mere acorn. This is even more the case with us!

Each of us is a seed of glory, but for the glory to be unlocked we must lose and die to what is. This is not something that waits until the day we physically die. Rather, it refers to a spiritual dying, to self and the priorities of this world, that occurs throughout our life. Only in this way can the Kingdom of God begin bearing true and lasting fruit. Our physical death is only the end of a lifelong process. If we die to this world by detesting its mere trinkets, we attain to the treasure of eternal life. The word “eternal” refers not merely to the length of life, but to its fullness. Lose what is merely passing and partial and gain what is glorious and godly, better and beautiful.

These are the economics of the Kingdom of God. They are paradoxical to be sure, but true and glorious!

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