Ignoring the Poor Is a Damnable Sin—A Homily for the 26th Sunday of the Year

This Sunday’s Gospel about the rich man and Lazarus contains some important teachings on judgment and Hell. We live in times in which many consider the teachings on Hell to be untenable. They struggle to understand how a God described as loving, merciful, and forgiving could assign certain souls to Hell forever. Despite the fact that the Doctrine of Hell is taught extensively in Scripture as well as by Jesus Himself, it does not comport well with many modern notions and so many people think that it has to go.

The parable addresses some of the modern concerns about Hell. Prior to looking at the reading, it is important to understand why Hell has to exist. I have written on that topic extensively here.  What follows is a brief summary of that lengthier article.

Hell must exist for one essential reason: respect. God has made us free and respects our freedom to choose His Kingdom or not. The Kingdom of God is not a mere abstraction. It has some very specific values, and these are realized and experienced perfectly in Heaven.

The values of the Kingdom of God include love, kindness, forgiveness, justice to the poor, generosity, humility, mercy, chastity, love of Scripture, love of the truth, worship of God, and the centrality of God.

Unfortunately, there are many people who do not want anything to do with those values, and God will not force them to. Everyone may want to go to Heaven, but Heaven is not merely what we want it to be; it is what it is, as God has set it forth. Heaven is the Kingdom of God and its values in all their fullness.

There are some (many, according to Jesus) who live in a way that consistently demonstrates their lack of interest in Heaven. They do this by showing that they are not interested in one or many of the Kingdom’s values. Hell “has to be” because God respects people’s freedom to choose to live in this way. Because such people demonstrate that they do not want Heaven, God respects their freedom to choose “other arrangements.”

In a way, this is what Jesus says in John’s Gospel, when He states that judgment is about what we prefer: And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil (John 3:19). In the end, you get what you want: light or darkness. Sadly, many prefer the darkness. The day of judgment discloses our final preference; God respects that even if it is not what He would want for us

This leads us to the Gospel, which we will look at in three stages.

I. The Ruin of the Rich Man – As the Gospel opens, we see a rich man (some call him Dives, which simply means “rich”). There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day.

It is clear that he lives very well and has the ability to help the poor man, Lazarus, who is outside his gate. But he does not do so.

The rich man’s sin is not so much one of hate as of indifference. He is living in open rejection of one of the Kingdom’s most important values: love of the poor. His insensitivity is literally a “damnable sin”; it lands him in Hell. His ruin is his insensitivity to the poor.

The care of the poor may be a complicated matter, and there may be different ways of approaching it, but we can we never consider ourselves exempt if it is within our means to help. We cannot avoid judgment for greed and insensitivity. As God said in last week’s reading regarding those who are insensitive to the poor, The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Never will I forget a thing they have done (Amos 8:7). God may well “forget” many of our sins (cf Is 43:23; Heb 8:12), but apparently disregarding the needs of the poor isn’t one of them.

This rich man has repeatedly rejected the Kingdom by his greed and insensitivity. He lands in Hell because he doesn’t want Heaven, where the poor are exalted (cf Luke 1:52).

Abraham explains the great reversal to him: My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented.

II. The Rigidity of the Rich Man – You might expect the rich man to have a change of heart and repent, but he does not. Looking up into Heaven, he sees Lazarus next to Abraham, but rather than finally recognizing Lazarus’ dignity and seeking his forgiveness, he tells Abraham to send Lazarus to Hell with a pail of water to refresh him. The rich man still sees Lazarus as beneath him (even though he has to look up to see him); he sees Lazarus as an errand boy.

Notice that the rich man does not ask to be admitted to Heaven! Although he is unhappy with where he is, he still does not seem to desire Heaven and the Kingdom of God with all its values. He has not really changed. He regrets his current torment but does not see Heaven as a solution. Neither does he want to appreciate Lazarus’ exalted state. The rich man wants to draw Lazarus back to the lower place he once occupied.

This helps to explain why Hell is eternal. It would seem that there is a mystery of the human person that we must come to accept: we reach a point in life when our character is forever fixed, when we can no longer change. When exactly this occurs is not clear; perhaps it is at the moment of death itself.

The Fathers of the Church often thought of the human person as clay on a potter’s wheel. As long as it is on the wheel and moist it can be molded, but when the clay is taken off the wheel and placed in the fiery kiln (fire is judgment day (cf 1 Cor 3:15)), its shape is forever fixed.

The rich man manifests this fixed quality. He is unhappy with his torments, even wanting to warn his brothers, but apparently he does not intend to change or somehow he is unable to change.

This is the basis for the teaching that Hell is eternal: once having encountered our fiery judgment, we will no longer be able to change. Our decision against the Kingdom of God and its values (a decision that God, in sadness, respects) will be forever fixed.

III. The Reproof for the Rest of Us – The rich man, though he cannot or will not change, would like to warn his brothers. He thinks that perhaps if Lazarus would rise from the dead and warn them, they would repent!

We are the rich man’s brethren, and we are hereby warned. The rich man wanted exotic measures, but Abraham said,They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.” “Oh no, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.” Then Abraham said, “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.”

This reply is dripping with irony, given Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.

We should not need miraculous signs to bring us conversion. The phrase “they have Moses and the prophets” is a Jewish way of saying that they have Scripture.

The Scriptures are clear to lay out the way before us. They give us the road map to Heaven and we only need to follow it. We ought not to need an angel or a ghost or some extraordinary sign. The Scriptures and the teachings of the Church should be sufficient.

Their message is clear enough: daily prayer, daily Scripture, weekly Eucharist, frequent confession, and repentance all lead to a change of heart wherein we begin to love the Kingdom of God and its values. We become more merciful, kind, generous, loving toward the poor and needy, patient, chaste, devout, and self-controlled.

Hell exists! It has to exist because we have a free choice to make, and God will respect that choice even if he does not prefer it.

Each of us is free to choose the Kingdom of God—or not. This Gospel makes it clear that our ongoing choices lead to a final, permanent choice, at which time our decision will be forever fixed.

The modern world needs to sober up. There is a Hell and its existence is both reasonable and in conformity with a God who both loves us and respects our freedom.

If you have any non-biblical notions in this regard, consider yourself reproved. Popular or not, Hell is taught, as is the sobering notion that many prefer its darkness to the light of God’s Kingdom.

The care of the poor is very important to God. Look through your closet this week and give away what you can. Look at your financial situation and see if it is pleasing to God. The rich man was not cruel, just insensitive and unaware. How will you and I respond to a Gospel like this?

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Ignoring the Poor Is a Damnable Sin—A Homily for the 26th Sunday of the Year

Only What You Do For Christ Will Last – A Meditation on the Poverty of this World’s Riches

gold-513062_1280In fourth chapter of Mark’s Gospel we find the following saying of the Lord:

To the one who has, more will be given; from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away (Mk 4:25).

The rich get richer? To one who reads this text from a worldly perspective, it might seem that the Lord is saying, in some fatalistic sense, that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. But such an interpretation would be incorrect, because it fails to understand that the Lord Jesus is speaking of the Kingdom of God, not the kingdom of this world. Indeed, the fuller context of Mark Chapter 4 is the memorable parable of the seed (of the Word) that falls either on the path, on rocky ground, among thorns, or on good soil. Those who have more are those who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold, sixtyfold, and a hundredfold (Mk 4:20).

Thus, the one who has more is the one who has the Kingdom of God, who has faith, who (by faith) has the Lord and the justice of the Lord, and who stands to inherit all of Heaven. He or she is the one who has more.

Note too how the “more” keeps building. To have faith is to have the Lord. To have the Lord is to have saving grace and mercy. To have saving grace and mercy is to grow in holiness and experience greater and greater healing. And to experience this transformation and share in God’s holiness is to be made ready for Heaven.

Yes, those who have the Kingdom are the ones who are rich! They may not have the fancy house, the expensive car, the six-figure salary, the big ego, or the well-coiffed hair. But they are rich in the only way that really matters or lasts: they are rich in the Kingdom.

So who are those who have not? They are the ones who have rejected the Kingdom of God, the Word of God, the grace and mercy of God. They “have not” the Kingdom. And they do not have it not because it hasn’t been offered but because they have rejected it. These are the people who are truly poor, who “have not.”

But notice that the passage says that the “have not” still does have something, for the text says, even what he has will be taken away. Now this means that he has something, but it will not be his for long. For what he has is this world and its vain, passing riches. It is his now, but like sand slipping through his fingers, it will soon be gone. It cannot last no matter how large a fortune he amasses.

Consider carefully what the Lord says here: the world’s riches cannot last. Further, they are all but nothing compared to the riches of the Kingdom of Heaven. The ones who have the Kingdom are those who have and will get more. By comparison, the ones who have this world really have nothing at all, and the little they do have will be taken from them.

Think of a billionaire with numerous homes, corporate jets, luxury yachts, even private islands. He may have amassed a fortune on this planet and own more real estate than even some governments!

But really, what he has is ultimately so little! If you were to go out into space, in fact not all that far into space, you wouldn’t even be able to see Earth. Our billionaire may have amassed a fortune, but it is only a portion of a speck of dust, for Earth is but speck of dust compared to the immensity of everything God has made.

Do you get the point? We tend to get very impressed by what is really very little in the end. And our billionaire possesses this wealth for but a fleeting moment in cosmic time. When his little moment is up, even the little he has will be taken from him.

There is only one way to be truly rich and that is to receive the gift of God and His Kingdom. Only this will last. Only in coming to possess this do we really have something that amounts to anything. Only this will grow until we are truly rich. Only those who have the Kingdom are rich in any true sense of the word. All that others have amounts to very little, and what little they have, since it is of the world, will be taken from them.

This song says, “Only what you do for Christ will last.” Here are some excerpts:

You may build great cathedrals large or small, you can build skyscrapers grand and tall, but only what you do for Christ will last

You may seek earthly power and fame, the world might be impressed by your great name, soon the glories of this life will all be past, but only what you do for Christ will last. 

Remember only what you do for Christ will last.

Only what you do for Him will be counted at the end; only what you do for Christ will last.

Don’t Burn Food for Fuel – As Seen on National Geographic

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“Cornheap” by en:User:Pratheepps. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

At the risk of inviting all the usual charges of being politically incorrect, I once again put before you the strange practice of burning food for fuel. The video at the bottom of the post details some of the human costs associated with the increasing use of corn, grains, and other crops for fuel.

There is a tendency for environmentalists of our time to think very narrowly about their issues. It is a praiseworthy thing to seek to reduce pollutants and other things that have negative environmental impacts. The Catechism summons us to good stewardship of the earth, the environment, and our natural resources.

However, the human cost of significant changes (to include higher taxes, the elimination of certain technologies altogether, and other things) should be part of the equation. This is especially true in terms of how it affects the developing world. Yet in my experience, the human cost is almost never presented honestly.

Whatever good intentions environmentalists have, the planet, the climate, and the environment seem to be the overwhelming focus of their concern, at least for the most radical of them. And if human beings are considered at all, we are collectively just a big problem: there are too many of us, we do lots of bad stuff, and it seems that the earth would be better off without us.

So here’s an edgy video, from the National Geographic video site, no less! For the record, let me say again that it is a bad idea to burn food for fuel. And if the video below is correct, it’s going to get worse unless we have an honest conversation and come to some consensus that burning food for fuel IS bad.

Stay tuned; this issue is bound to heat up. I pray that common sense will prevail over what is most certainly a bad idea, one which will harm the poor disproportionally.

I know that I normally use my Friday blog for more light-hearted fare, but this video is what popped up in my video queue today. I’m glad to see the concerns are spreading.

On Being Poor in America: Recent Data Reveal Some Surprising Facts

I have been reading a rather lengthy report on poverty in America written by Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield of the Heritage Foundation. The Full and lengthy report is here: What is Poverty in America Today? I am going to present some excerpts here.

The authors  use substantial data from the Census Bureau and the Residential Energy Consumption Survey (RECS) of the Department of Energy to paint a portrait of poverty in America.

Their data suggests to me that we ought to consider distinguishing three basic categories when it comes to understanding our obligations to those with less: the impoverished, the poor, and the needy.

First there is the category of the impoverished, those living in deep poverty. Let me begin by quoting from the report:

Each year for the past two decades, the U.S. Census Bureau has reported that over 30 million Americans were living in “poverty.” In recent years, the Census has reported that one in seven Americans are poor. But what does it mean to be “poor” in America? How poor are America’s poor?

For most Americans, the word “poverty” suggests destitution: an inability to provide a family with nutritious food, clothing, and reasonable shelter. For example, the Poverty Pulse poll taken by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development asked the general public: “How would you describe being poor in the U.S.?” The overwhelming majority of responses focused on homelessness, hunger or not being able to eat properly, and not being able to meet basic needs.[1]

Yet if poverty means lacking nutritious food, adequate warm housing, and clothing for a family, relatively few of the more than 30 million people identified as being “in poverty” by the Census Bureau could be characterized as poor.[2] While material hardship definitely exists in the United States, it is restricted in scope and severity. The average poor person, as defined by the government, has a living standard far higher than the public imagines.

[Only] a small minority are homeless.

To a family that has lost its home and is living in a homeless shelter, the fact that only 0.5 percent of families shared this experience in 2009 is no comfort. The distress and fear for the future that the family experiences are real and devastating. Public policy must deal with that distress. However, accurate information about the extent and severity of social problems is imperative for the development of effective public policy.

Hence, it would seem that those we call impoverished, those who live in poverty, are those who do not have the capacity for  even the basic essentials such as shelter, clothes, food and water.  Largely this is the homeless population this country and they exist in true poverty.

The report goes on the to distinguish the second tier of the less fortunate who I would call the poor. Here we see those who are not homeless, they do have food and many basic amenities, but they are in a financially fragile condition.  Decades ago we would often refer to these as the working poor. However, in the age of welfare a significant number of the poor do not work, and hence that distinction not longer fully applies. Among the poor there is a both a range and a variability. The report begins with the poor in the most fragile state and says,

[T]here is a range of living conditions within the poverty population. The average poor family does not represent every poor family.

Fortunately, the number of homeless Americans has not increased during the current recession.[6] Although most poor families are well fed and have a fairly stable food supply, a sizeable minority experiences temporary restraints in food supply at various times during the year. The number of families experiencing such temporary food shortages has increased somewhat during the current economic downturn.

Thus, among the poor are those who remain at risk of impoverishment due to lack of food and basic essentials. Perhaps this is seasonally due to fact that some jobs have seasonal qualities. Some also have illness like asthma, which are affected by the season. Perhaps too the vulnerability is due less to seasons than to the economy. In a downturn in the economy like we are experiencing  their working hours are cut, or their job eliminated. Other family factors such as the health of family members or various crises make the poor at the lower end edge more toward permanent, temporary or seasonal impoverishment and make them vulnerable to true destitution.

But among the poor are those who do not range toward the bottom, near destitution. They may be stably poor in the sense that their income is below the Federal Poverty line, but in no way are they destitute. Here is where the report makes some findings that some may find controversial, but they seem well backed up by extensive data. The report says,

The federal government conducts several other surveys that provide detailed information on the living conditions of the poor. These surveys provide a very different sense of American poverty.[8] They reveal that the actual standard of living among America’s poor is far higher than the public imagines and that, in fact, most of the persons whom the government defines as “in poverty” are not poor in any ordinary sense of the term.

The Chart below shows information for 2005 for poor U.S. households (those with cash incomes below the official poverty thresholds). While poor households were slightly less likely to have conveniences than the general population, most poor households had a wide range of amenities. As Chart 2 shows, 78 percent of poor households had air conditioning, 64 percent had cable or satellite TV, and 38 percent had a personal computer.[14]

Hence it is clear that those beneath the poverty line are not always lacking in a number of significant conveniences and comforts. The numbers are based on the aforementioned Residential Energy Consumption Survey (RECS) published each year by the US Department of Energy. Toward the bottom of the list the lack of Internet access is of significance, since it is an important way of connect with the wider world and thus a help up and out of poverty if well used. But, other things being equal, being poor in America is nothing like the like the utter destitution Americans often see in other parts of the world, even close at hand in the Caribbean Islands. In such places the poor often live literally in cardboard boxes and shanties with no running water, electricity or plumbing. In is clear that most of the poor in America are impoverished,are not destitute. Many are vulnerable as stated above, but not in true poverty as I have suggested is a term that should be used for the truly destitute.

A further feature in the report is the encouraging note that we have made progress in ensuring that the poor live in better conditions. While it is often held that the War on Poverty has done nothing to push back the poverty level (still at 30%), that may not be entirely true. As we have seen, the Federal Government defines a certain level of income to indicate whether one is poor or not. But income is not the whole story. Frankly the poor live in better conditions today than they used to as seen in the chart above. Frankly we ALL live better than we used to, and the poor are no exception. The report says,

[There has been] Improvement in Poor Households over Time. Because the RECS has reported on the living conditions of the poor for several decades, it is a useful tool for charting the improvement in living conditions among the poor over time. For example, the chart at right shows the percentage of all households and the percentage of poor households that had any type of air conditioning between 1970 and 2005. Although poor households were less likely to have air conditioning in any given year, the share of households with air conditioning increased steadily for both groups over the 25-year period. By 2005, the two rates converged as air conditioning became nearly universal in U.S. society.

Another example is the share of all households and the share of poor households that had a personal computer from 1990 to 2005. Personal computers were rare in 1990 but spread widely through society over the next 15 years. Computer ownership among the poor increased substantially during the period. In 1990, only 5 percent of poor households had a computer. By 2005, the number had risen to almost 40 percent.

I will say that living among the poor for almost seven years and continuing to advocate for them even now has brought me into many a Public Housing Development. And although the amenities listed above were in evidence the living conditions were poorly affected by dilapidated housing and poorly maintained housing units. Much of this is caused however by the social conditions existent in those projects. I recall working hard for a particular housing development in Southeast Washington to be renovated which it was, in 2001. By 2007 when I left the neighborhood it was boarded up and vacant once again.

The usual scenario is that a small percentage of residents become junkies, (it only takes a few). Then they get desperate for money to buy drugs or pay off a drug dealer. So they begin to strip out the appliances and plumbing in their apartment, and sell them for drug money. The damage spreads through the building since they wreck the plumbing, cause leaks and water leaks to the floors below before building maintenance has time to shut it off. Next comes mildew and electrical problems. This leads to further vacancies. As a building begins to go vacant, vacant apartments are perfect targets for more desperate vandals. Once the process starts, a building can go from filled to vacant and derelict in six months.

This is not the case in every public housing unit, just the worst ones. In this case the report issues a surprising finding, that to some extent does not comport with my experience:

Of course, the typical poor family could have a host of modern conveniences and still live in dilapidated, overcrowded housing. However, data from other government surveys show that this is not the case.[19] Poor Americans are well housed and rarely overcrowded.[20] In fact, the houses and apartments of America’s poor are quite spacious by international standards. The typical poor American has considerably more living space than does the average European.[21]

Forty-three percent of all poor households own their own homes. The average home owned by persons classified as poor by the Census Bureau is a three-bedroom house with one-and-a-half baths, a garage, and a porch or patio.[22]

Nearly all of the houses and apartments of the poor are in good condition. According to the government’s data, only one in 10 has moderate physical problems. Only 2 percent of poor domiciles have “severe” physical problems, the most common of which is sharing a bathroom with another household living in the building.[23]

Well, not so sure the conditions I saw were that pleasant but I did live among the poorest of the poor deep in the Government Housing Projects, usually poorly run and maintained.

The final category I would list but cannot develop here now is the category of the needy. The needy may have no financial concerns at all. Their needs may center more around spiritual, emotional and psychological things. Further, perhaps due to age or handicap they may need physical assistance. Young children surely need teaching. Troubled teenagers need counseling and mentoring. Alcoholics need support groups and assistance to remain sober, and so forth. This category has little to do with money, food or shelter, but it can be related to it.

In the end, I suggest a threefold distinction as stated above: the impoverished, the poor, and the needy. Surely the truly impoverished need out immediate and on-going help to provide their basic need. The poor too need support, for many of them are financially vulnerable without some assistance to lend stability to their lives. The needy have various concerns that we ought to be personally willing to address as well.

But poverty, and being poor and needy in America is less monolithic than most assume and coming to see the complexity can help us target our resources more effectively.

We have obligations to the needy, the poor and the destitute, but it also helps to see that there is a range to the problem. Further, we actually have made some progress, if we look deeper into the data. The graph at the top of this page shows the steep decline in the Black poverty rate from 1966 to now. The strong emergence of the Black Middle Class is a hidden secret of this land.

Progress HAS been made – There is work to do, but simply saying that the poverty rate in this land has never budged from 30% may not be an accurate picture, for how the poor live and what it really means to be poor in America are poorly understood by most Americans. Progress has been made.

This Video presents some of the startling realities of destitution in a country not far from our own shores. Many parishes here in Washington have sister parishes in Haiti:

Only What You Do For Christ Will Last – A Meditation on the Gospel of the Rich and Poor

In fourth chapter of Mark’s Gospel which we are reading at daily Mass this week we find the following saying of the Lord:

To the one who has, more will be given; from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. (Mk 4:25 )

The Rich get Richer? Now to one who reads such a text from a merely worldly perspective it might seem the Lord is saying in some fatalistic sense that the rich get richer and the poor just get poorer. But such a reading of this text would be incorrect since it fails to understand that the Lord Jesus is speaking of the Kingdom of God and not the kingdom of this world.  Indeed, the fuller context of Chapter 4 is the memorable parable about the seed of the word that falls on either on the path, on rocky ground, among the thorns, or into good soil. Not only does the Lord give this parable, but goes on to explain the parable at considerable length. So the context of this saying is not the world but the Kingdom of God.

Thus, when the Lord speaks of those who have “more” he does not mean material possessions and the wealth of this passing world. Rather, those who have more are those who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold, sixtyfold and a hundredfold (Mk 4:20).

Thus, the one who has more is the one who has the Kingdom of God, who has faith, who, by faith, has the Lord and the justice of the Lord, and who stands to inherit all of heaven. He or she is the one who has more.

Note too how the “more” keeps building. To have faith is to have the Lord, and to have the Lord is have saving grace and mercy. And to have saving grace and mercy is to grow in holiness and experience greater and greater healing. And to experience this transformation and share in God’s holiness is to be made ready for heaven. And to be made ready for heaven is to one day have heaven, and to be with God for ever.  Thus to have more and to accept its power is to have more and more and more, until we are spiritually rich in the kingdom. Yes, those who have the Kingdom are the ones who are rich! They may not have the fancy house, with the big car, big salary, big ego and big hair. But they are rich in the only way that really matters or lasts; they are rich in the Kingdom.

So, who are those who have not? They are those who have rejected the Kingdom of God, the Word of God, the grace and mercy of God. They “have not” the Kingdom. And they do not have it not because it hasn’t been offered but because they have rejected it.  These are the ones who are truly poor, who are destitute, who “have not.”

But notice that the text does say they do have something, for the text says, even what he has will be taken away. Now this means he or she has something, but it will not be theirs for long. For what they have is the world and its vain, passing riches. It is theirs now, but like sand slipping through their fingers, it ebbs away and will some be gone. It cannot last no matter how large the fortune is that is amassed.

Consider carefully what the Lord says here. The world’s riches cannot last. Further, they are all but nothing compared to the riches of the Kingdom of heaven. The ones who have the kingdom are those who have and will get more. The ones who have this world, by comparison, have nothing at all, and the little they do have will be taken from them.

Think of a multibillionaire, a captain of industry with numerous homes, corporate jets, luxury yachts, even private islands. He may have amassed a fortune on this planet and own more real estate than even certain governments!

But really, what he has is ultimately so little! If you were to go out into space, not even all that far, and look back you couldn’t even see the earth. Our billionaire may have amassed a fortune, but it is only a portion of a speck of space dust, for the earth is but speck of dust compared to immensity of the things God has made.

Do you get the point? We get real impressed about what is really very little in the end. And our billionaire has this wealth for only a very brief nanosecond of cosmic time. When his little moment is up, even the little he has is taken from him.

There is only one way to be truly rich and that is to receive the gift of God and his Kingdom. Only this will last. Only in coming to possess this do we really have something that amounts to anything. Only this will grow until we are rich. Only those who have the kingdom are rich in any sense of the word. All others really have what amounts to only very little, and what little they have, if it is of the world, will be taken from them.

This song says: Only what you do for Christ will last. Some of the verses say,

You may build great cathedrals large or small,  you can build skyscrapers grand and tall, but only what you do for Christ will last…. You may seek earthly power and fame,  the world might be impressed by your great name, soon the glories of this life will all be past, but only what you do for Christ will last. Remember only what You do for Christ will last. Only what you do for Him will be counted at the end;  only what you do for Christ will last.

 

*

Vouchers Stand a Good Chance of Revival in a Republican Response to the State of the Union

From POLITICO comes the news that school vouchers (aka opportunity scholarships) will re-emerge as a key political and social issue in the aftermath of the State of the Union Speech tonight.  Vouchers allow students who qualify to leave failing public schools and attend parochial or private schools. They take with them most of the tax money set aside for their education and that money pays their tuition in the private or parochial school. In the District of Columbia a limited voucher program had helped a number of Catholic Schools in the city to survive. Their survival has been gravely threatened when the Democratic Congress refused to renew the program in 2008. The Obama Administration completely defunded the program in the 2010 budget. With yet another sea change in congressional power back to Republican control, it looks like vouchers stand a good chance of renewal in the District and perhaps elsewhere. Here are excerpts from the Politico article:

The day after President Barack Obama makes education a centerpiece of his State of the Union address, House Speaker John Boehner will try to force his hand on the issue of school vouchers in Washington, D.C. as a test of the White House’s commitment to bipartisanship.

The Ohio Republican, along with Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), will introduce legislation on Wednesday to reauthorize the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, the speaker’s office said Monday, making a school voucher initiative that Democrats, including Obama, have strongly opposed as a bargaining chip for beginning discussions on the administration’s desired education proposals. 

“If the president is sincere about working together on education reform, we should start by saving this successful, bipartisan program that has helped so many underprivileged children get a quality education,” Boehner said in a statement to POLITICO…..

Teachers unions have fought against the voucher program and Obama’s budget pulled funding for new scholarships after 2010…..

Obama is unlikely to showcase the program in his State of the Union address Tuesday night when he calls for reform and additional spending on education initiatives. But Boehner is planning to make it difficult for the president to ignore the issue.

 The speaker’s guests in the House gallery will include a student, parent and teacher from each of the four D.C. Catholic schools that participate in the program. About 50 D.C. schools participate in the program overall.

 The GOP’s outline of its top priorities, the “Pledge to America,” does not mention education. The D.C. vouchers funding could be the only bill Boehner authors all year, his office said to stress how important he views the program, and he is not co-sponsoring any legislation this Congress

Read the complete article here:  http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0111/48087.html

 This is hopeful news for poor children in DC and is also a potential lifeline for Catholic Schools in the city many of which are struggling financially. Stay tuned and pray!

Many Who are Last, Will Be First: Pondering the Great Reversal.

One of the strong traditions of Scripture is of the great reversal that will one day come for many. I have often been sobered by it when I consider how blessed I have been in this life. I have also been consoled by it when I struggle to understand why some people in this world seem to suffer so much more that I do, or others do.  Life seems a very uneven proposition if we only look at this side of the equation. Only God sees the whole picture but to some extent he has revealed that those who have suffered much in this life will be more than rewarded in the life to come and that there will be a great reversal.

The theme of the great reversal is most fully developed in the New Testament where the understanding of the life to come is also most developed.

Consider the following texts:

  1. [Jesus said], “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Matt 19:30 & also Matt 20:16 & also Mark 10:31)
  2. [Mary said], “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones but lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things; but the rich he has sent away empty.”  (Lk 1:52-53)
  3. Abraham replied [to the rich man], ‘My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented. (Luke 16:25)
  4. Blessed are you who are now hungry, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who are now weeping, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude and insult you, and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice and leap for joy on that day! Behold, your reward will be great in heaven. For their ancestors treated the prophets in the same way. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. But woe to you who are filled now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will grieve and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for their ancestors treated the false prophets in this way. (Luke 6:21-26)
  5. Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more. (Luke 12:48)
  6. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us. (Rom 8:18)
  7. For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to what is seen but to what is unseen; for what is seen is transitory, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Cor 4:17-18)

There are other texts, and I am grateful if you will add to this list. But, for now, let these suffice. As I have said, I am both challenged and consoled by these texts.

I am consoled for I, like others, have suffered in this life and experienced set backs. In regards to this, the Lord promises that sufferings and set backs, if endured with faith, produce ultimate profit, not loss. Much of this profit may wait till heaven, but surely sufferings endured with faith are like treasure stored up in heaven. First the cross, but then the crown. Hallelujah.

I am also consoled on account of others. I, like you, know people who have suffered far more than seems fair. Loss after loss mounts up, grief after grief. My humanity recoils and I often cry to God on behalf of others who seem to suffer so much more than others. Lost health, lost jobs, lost home and family members. Why, O Lord?!

I think of my poor sister who was mentally ill and horribly afflicted by demons and voices who spoke to her, haunted her and robbed her increasingly of any touch with reality. Ultimately her life ended tragically when she died in a fire. She was surely among the last. But she loved God and wanted desperately to get well. The day after she died I offered Mass for her and I heard her speak to me in the depth of my heart and she said “I’m OK now, Charlie.” And somehow I knew that God was taking care of her, purifying and clearing her mind. And I also knew that she who was among the last but believed, I would one day see as among the first in the glory of heaven (pray God I get there). I suspect that she will be closest to the throne and that I, who have been among the first here in this world will have a “mansion” far less spacious than hers.

I am consoled for my sister’s sake and also for those who, unlike me, live in great poverty in other parts of the world. The bounty of American living is but a dream to them. Perhaps there is war. Perhaps there is famine or natural disaster. Perhaps they are victims of despotic and corrupt governments. They are less free, less blessed, in greater stress and often in desperate need. They are among the “last” in this world. But, if they have faith, they will be blessed to be among the first in the great reversal that is coming when the Kingdom fully breaks in. Faith IS essential. Jesus did not say all the last shall be first but that many  who are last shall be first. I am sure that it is living faith that makes the difference.

But I am also challenged. I am among those who are first. What does this say for me in the great reversal that is coming upon this world? I have good health, I enjoy bountiful blessings. I am more blessed that I deserve. I live in the greatest, richest, and most powerful country in the world. My needs are largely provided for. I am here in my air-conditioned room with time enough to write and ponder things far beyond mere subsistence. I am surely among the first, the rich. Even the poorest in this country are blessed compared to many others in the world. Where shall I be when the first trumpet sounds, when the great reversal sets in?

Not everything is as it appears. We crave wealth, power and access and call it a blessing. We want to be first. But God warns it may well be a curse: Those who want to be rich are falling into temptation and into a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge them into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils, and some people in their desire for it have strayed from the faith and have pierced themselves with many pains. (1 Tim 6:9-10). Knowing  this and other texts like it, we still want to be rich, on top, first. We are very obtuse.

And so, I must say I am challenged. I am not defeated however or fatalistic. God has not utterly forsaken the “first.” He has left us a way and given us instruction on how to avoid the “curse”  of our wealth and good fortune. Simply put, that we should use our status as “first” to bless others. That our many gifts would be placed at the service of the human family. A few texts come to mind:

  1. [Jesus said], “I tell you, make friends for yourselves with deceitful wealth,  so that when it fails, they [likely the poor whom we befriended] will welcome you into eternal dwellings.” (Luke 16:9)
  2. Tell the rich in the present age not to be proud and not to rely on so uncertain a thing as wealth but rather on God, who richly provides us with all things for our enjoyment. Tell them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous, ready to share, thus accumulating as treasure a good foundation for the future, so as to win the life that is true life. (1 Tim 6:17-19)

And so it is that the Lord tells us who are “cursed” to be first to store up our true treasure in heaven (Matt 6:19). Of course we do not store up our treasure in heaven by putting it in a balloon or rocket. Rather we store it up by generously dispensing it to the poor. Perhaps by simple gift, or by providing  jobs and economic opportunity for others. Perhaps by sharing our gifts of knowledge, or time or other talents. In so doing perhaps our curse of being among the first will be overcome and the challenge will be met.

The great reversal is coming! Where will I be when the first trumpet sounds?

This Chant of the funeral Mass  refers to the great reversal but prays that the deceased will be found with Lazarus who once was poor. The text says: In paradisum deducant te Angeli; in tuo adventu suscipiant te martyres, et perducant te in civitatem sanctam Ierusalem. Chorus angelorum te suscipiat, et cum Lazaro quondam paupere æternam habeas requiem.(May the angels lead you to paradise and at your coming may the martyrs receive you and may they lead you into the Holy City Jerusalem. May a choir of Angels receive you and with Lazarus who once was poor, may you have eternal rest).

The Strangest Idol of All

There is a passage in the Gospels that breaks conventions and cuts to the core of what has come to be called the “Social Gospel.”  Before looking at the passage we need to define “Social Gospel.” The phrase “Social Gospel” emerged in the Protestant denominations but has also come to be used in Catholic circles as well. Basically defined the Social Gospel is an intellectual movement that was most prominent in the late 19th century and early 20th century. The movement applied Christian ethics to societal problems especially injustice, inequality, alcoholism, crime, racial tensions, slums, child labor, labor unions, poor schools, and the danger of war.  Basically stated, if faith was to be real it must address these issues and be relevant to those who suffer these maladies.

So far all true. But then comes this very troubling Gospel. A Gospel that breaks the conventional wisdom that the service of the poor is the first priority of the Church. It obnoxiously states that there is something more important than serving the poor. To be sure, serving the poor is essential, but it is a gospel that said something was even more important. How could this be so! Who said such a thing?? And that brings us to the text:

While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table. When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.” Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. I tell you the truth, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” Then one of the Twelve—the one called Judas Iscariot—went to the chief priests and asked, “What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?”  (Matt 26:6-14)

The other Gospels contain this account as well. It is in Mark 14 and Also in John 12. John attributes the objection only to Judas and reckons it on account of his greed whereas Mark and Matthew attribute the objection to all the disciples present. Even more interesting all three Gospels link this to Judas’ decision to hand Jesus over. It obviously floor the disciples and especially Judas to hear Jesus speak this way.

There is simply no other way to assess this Gospel than “earth-shaking.” The reader surely expects Jesus to agree that extravagance toward him should be jettisoned in favor of serving the poor. Had he not said that judgment would be based on what we did for the “least of my brethren”  (cf Matt 25:41ff) ?? Why does Jesus not rebuke the extravagance and demand it be sold and given to the poor? It is a shocking Gospel, and earth-shaking declaration: “The poor you shall always have” ??!  But there it is, glaring at us like some sort of unexpected visitor.

What is the Lord saying? Many things to be sure, but let me suggest this essential teaching: “Nothing….absolutely nothing…..not even the service of the poor, takes precedence over the worship, honor and obedience due to God.” Nothing.  If even the service of the poor takes precedence over this, it becomes an idol. An idol in sheep’s clothing to be sure, but an idol nonetheless.

An old Seminary professor (deceased now) told me many years ago” “Beware the poverty of Judas.” What does this mean? Fundamentally it means that the care of the poor can sometimes be used (by some) in an attempt to water down Christian doctrine and the priority of worship. The social gospel, if we are not careful, can demand that we compromise Christian dogma and the priority of proclaiming the Gospel.

Let me be clear, the Social Gospel is not wrong per se. But, like anything, it can be used by the world and the evil one to draw us into compromise and to the suppression of the truth. The reasons for this suppression are always presented as having a good effect but in the end we are asked to suppress the truth in some way. Thus the social Gospel is hijacked, it is used to compel us to suppress the truth of the Gospel and to not mention Jesus.

Perhaps some examples will help. Let me state at the outset, I am adapting these examples as generic. They are based on real world examples but I am not mentioning names and places because it is not the purpose of this blog to engage in personal attacks of other people’s struggles to uphold the gospel. If you demand specifics I cannot and will not give them. This is about you and me, not merely other people. It is possible for us to condemn others for their faults but not look at ourselves. Hence. I offer these examples in humility realizing that I struggle too.

  1. A large diocese in the USA is offered the possibility to serve drug addicts. Price of admission is that they coordinate a “needle-exchange program” which helps addicts shoot up without contracting AIDS. The Government money is substantial and may permit them to serve the poor who are addicts with treatment programs that may lead to their sobriety. Only cost  is that some other addicts may be enabled in their self-destructive behavior and encouraged by the clean needles to shoot up.  Church teaching does not permit us to do wrong even if good may possibly come from it. Nevertheless the Diocese takes the money and hands out clean needles to addicts but gets the money to serve others. The poor are being served! Shouldn’t we look the other way? But is serving the poor an absolute good or do we owe God obedience first? ? What do you think? Is Jesus more important than even poor drug addicts?  Or is he less important? Remember, you have to choose! You can’t just say “I think both are important.” The Government is demanding you choose. Will it be Jesus and what he teaches or will it be the poor at the price of compromising the Gospel? What will it be?
  2. A Bishop from a moderately large diocese is confronted with the fact that he has not rebuked the local senator for his votes to fund Abortion for the poor using Federal Money. The Bishop responds, “But he is with us on important social legislation and we cannot afford to alienate him.” The senator in  question does surely believe in a substantial funding of programs the Church supports. Programs such as: supportive housing for the poor, aid to families with dependent children, drug treatment programs, affordable housing initiatives, etc. The senator in question is a great advocate for these issues that the Church supports. Only Problem? He thinks it’s OK to fund the killing of babies in their mother’s womb. The Bishop reasons that it is not good to alienate this Senator who “is with us on so many issues.” He fails to rebuke the Catholic Senator and urge him to repent. The Church would lose too much you see. The price is too high. We could not serve the poor as well. This Senator might not vote to fund the Bills that fund programs that Catholic Charities depend on. We “need” to compromise here, the poor are depending on us. “Surely Jesus will understand.” And thus Church teaching yields to the need to serve the poor. Surely it is good to serve the poor. But at what price? What do you think? Is Jesus more important than even the poor?  Or is he less important? Remember, you have to choose! Yon can’t just say “I think both are important.” The Government is demanding you choose. Will it be Jesus and what he teaches or will it be the poor at the price of compromising the Gospel? What will it be?
  3. In several large cities, Catholic Charities runs adoption programs. Lately, cities and state governments have begun to demand that Catholic Charities treat “Gay” couples on the same basis as heterosexual couples. In order to receive State funds that help Catholic Charities carry on its work of service to the poor who are needy children looking for a stable family Catholic Charities will have to agree to set aside Church and Scriptural doctrine that homosexual unions are not only less than ideal for children, such unions are sinful. If Catholic Charities wants to continue to serve these poor children at all, they must deny the teachings of Christ and His Church. Is this too high a price to pay in order to be able to serve the poor? What do you think? Remember, you have to choose! You can’t just say “I think both are important.” The Government is demanding you choose. Will it be Jesus and what he teaches or will it be the poor at the price of compromising the Gospel? What will it be?
  4. Many Catholic hospitals receive government funds to treat the poor. But lately the government is demanding, in certain jurisdictions, that Catholic hospitals dispense contraceptives, provide abortion referrals, and cooperate in euthanasia. Remember now, the poor are served with these monies. Should the hospital compromise and take the money? Should it is say OK, thus enabling it to go on serving  the poor? What is more important, the poor or Jesus and what he teaches? ? What do you think? Is Jesus more important than even the poor who come to hospitals for service?  Or is he less important? Remember, you have to choose! You can’t just say “I think both are important.” The Government is demanding you choose. Will it be Jesus and what he teaches or will it be the poor at the price of compromising the Gospel? What will it be?
  5. Catholic Charities is offered the possibility of getting a large amount of money to serve the homeless. But there is a requirement that Jesus never be mentioned. Catholic Charities must remove all crucifixes, Bibles, and any references to Catholic teaching. Now remember, the poor will be served with this money! It’s a lot of  money to walk away from! ? What do you think? Is  Jesus more important than even the homeless?  Or is he less important? Remember, you have to choose! You can’t just say “I think both are important.” The Government is demanding you choose. Will it be Jesus and what he teaches or will it be the poor at the price of compromising the Gospel? What will it be?

In the end, I leave you and me with these questions:

  1. How far do we go in serving the poor?
  2. The service of the poor, and the issues that the poor face are an essential work of the Church, but does it trump worship and doctrine?
  3. Should Church teaching bend to the demands of the Government in order to serve the poor?
  4. What does Jesus mean in the Gospel above when he teaches that anointing him is more important than serving the poor?
  5. What is the Church’s truest priority? Is the truth of the Gospel or is it serving the poor?
  6. What if these two things are in conflict? Which is chosen over the other?
  7. Given the Gospel above, what would Jesus have us choose as first priority?
  8. When large amounts of money are made available for the Church to serve the poor but at the price of us compromising or hiding the truth of Gospel, what do you think the Church should do?
  9. Why?

The Social Gospel is essential. It cannot be merely set aside. But the Social Gospel cannot eclipse the Full Gospel. A part, even if essential, cannot demand full resources and full obedience, not at the expense of the whole or the more important!

Money and resources to serve the poor  are essential, but they are still money and it remains stunningly true that we cannot serve both God and money.  In the end, even serving the poor can become a kind of idol to which God has to yield. It is the strangest idol of all for it comes in very soft sheep’s clothing, the finest wool!  But if God and his reveled truth have to yield to it, it is an idol, the strangest idol of all.

 I do not agree with everything in this video, but it well presents the temptations that Catholic Charities faces: