The Christian tradition has never recognised the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property. Saint John Paul II forcefully reaffirmed this teaching, stating that “God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favouring anyone”. These are strong words. He noted that “a type of development which did not respect and promote human rights – personal and social, economic and political, including the rights of nations and of peoples – would not be really worthy of man”. He clearly explained that “the Church does indeed defend the legitimate right to private property, but she also teaches no less clearly that there is always a social mortgage on all private property, in order that goods may serve the general purpose that God gave them”. Consequently, he maintained, “it is not in accord with God’s plan that this gift be used in such a way that its benefits favour only a few”. This calls into serious question the unjust habits of a part of humanity.
94. The rich and the poor have equal dignity, for “the Lord is the maker of them all” (Proverbs 22:2). “He himself made both small and great” (Wisdom 6:7), and “he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good” (Matthew 5:45). This has practical consequences, such as those pointed out by the bishops of Paraguay: “Every campesino has a natural right to possess a reasonable allotment of land where he can establish his home, work for subsistence of his family and a secure life. This right must be guaranteed so that its exercise is not illusory but real. That means that apart from the ownership of property, rural people must have access to means of technical education, credit, insurance, and markets”.
95. The natural environment is a collective good, the patrimony of all humanity and the responsibility of everyone. If we make something our own, it is only to administer it for the good of all. If we do not, we burden our consciences with the weight of having denied the existence of others. That is why the New Zealand bishops asked what the commandment “Thou shall not kill” means when “twenty percent of the world’s population consumes resources at a rate that robs the poor nations and future generations of what they need to survive”.
There is a verse suppressed in modern editions of the Victorian hymn ‘All things bright and beautiful’, which runs:
The rich man in his castle, The poor man at his gate, God made them, high or lowly, And ordered their estate.
It was a struggle, led by the churches, to establish the right to universal education in Britain, a struggle they are still involved with elsewhere. ‘Instructing the Ignorant’ is one of the Spiritual Works of Mercy, which together with the Corporal Works of Mercy are long seen as a distillation of Christian living. Ignorance, that is lack of education, orders the lowly estate of many people.
Yesterday we were reflecting on the story of the rich young man, as told by Matthew (19:16-22). We saw that the young man has just asked Jesus which commandments are necessary for entry into eternal life, as though he is hoping he will not have to pay too high a price. I have read this story many times, but I was surprised, as though for the first time, to realise that Jesus does seem to reduce the price for this young man. He lists only six commandments: ‘You shall not kill. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not give false witness. Honour your father and mother. You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ This begins to seem like that quintessentially middle-eastern pastime: bartering and haggling. Maybe Jesus is happy to play this game a bit with the young man; maybe he hopes to win him round; perhaps we can imagine Jesus with a little smile here, a sidelong glance as he takes ten commandments and reduces them to six.
Then, astonishingly to me, the young man seems to think he’s got these six covered. I go back and reread the commandments given here and I concede that, ok, the first five of them are straightforward enough: you either have or you haven’t committed the sins they forbid. But the sixth one is, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ I wonder who can possibly boast of keeping this commandment perfectly. Human interactions are so complicated, and riddled with sad opportunities for causing offense. But the young man seems to be saying, “Easy!” to all of them. “Well, am I in?” he silently challenges. And Jesus is never at a loss to understand the unspoken question.
Not so fast, Jesus seems to say. And now we come to the place where Jesus is no longer playing. He becomes absolutely serious here. Let’s take this slowly. ‘If you wish to be perfect…’ he begins. Can there be a touch of irony here on Jesus’ part? Our rich boy thinks he’s perfect already. But Jesus will not reinforce his mistaken view of himself. He gives him a deeper challenge: ‘…go and sell your possessions….’ The man’s blood runs cold for a moment. Jesus probably detects it, and so he both appeals to his generosity and, at the same time, calls his bluff with regard to that love of neighbour he claims to have mastered. He tells the young man, ‘…give the money to the poor.’
I notice for the first time now that it is only money that is gained from selling his material possessions that the young man is told to give away. This would constitute a sort of excess, over and above the money he lives on. Jesus isn’t asking him to make himself destitute. But he is asking him something that involves a life-style change. If he sells his ‘possessions’, it probably means his house and what’s inside it. The young man would probably have thought that if those things go, what would protect him from a life of homelessness? The loss of cherished personal treasures, large and small, that give him a sense of identity, emotional comfort and security – how would he manage without all that? Jesus probably sees him turn pale, and quickly promises him a different kind of security: ‘You will have treasure in heaven,’ he offers. The young man had asked, after all, about attaining eternal life. Here is his ‘how to’ manual. This treasure in heaven, Jesus implies, is so much better than the one he is so scared to lose now. As I ponder these lines, I recall from my own experience that you simply can’t tell how freeing it is to get rid of your possessions by merely looking at it from a safe distance and trying to imagine what it will be like; this state of joyful freedom and openness to God is a gift given by Jesus’ Spirit in our hearts, but it only comes after you have made the renunciation. This is something I’d have wanted to tell the young man, had I been there. But no one else intrudes upon this, by now, intense exchange.
Finally, Jesus issues the ultimate and most privileged invitation of all. He says to the young man: ‘Come! Follow me!’ You will have a life of immense purpose and profound meaning with me. I will give you joy now, and lead you to attain what you have asked for: eternal life. But the rich young man cannot fathom this. He cannot see beyond the cost, and it costs far more than he had expected. And by now he is beyond haggling. He feels the full weight of this exchange with Jesus and it has oppressed his spirits. He turns his back on Jesus and leaves him, a very sad young man indeed.
The tragedy of the young man’s situation comes home to me again. But this time, as I see him walk away with his head down, I am suddenly reminded of other stories. First, Zacchaeus comes to mind, the rich tax collector in Luke who climbs a tree to see Jesus in the crowd, and later, invites Jesus to his home, where he throws a huge party for him, after joyfully offering to give huge amounts of his money to anyone he had cheated. The joy of Zacchaeus leaps from the pages. It’s the same with Matthew – another tax collector – called to be one of the Twelve. He throws a big party, too. Or I think of Our Lady, who gives her very body, her whole being, her life, everything: the sublime joy of her Magnificat echoes through the millennia. And her cousin Elizabeth: the unborn baby in her womb leaps for joy at the presence of the young, pregnant Mary. Elizabeth understands in her soul that Mary’s self-gift, and her own, will bring God our Saviour into the world. What greater joy can there be? I recall the overflow of loving emotion in the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet and dries them with her hair. I think of the story of the prodigal son. It ends with a great celebration for the wayward son who returns to his father. The bitter, jealous elder brother excludes himself from the celebration, but the father would welcome him with joy in a moment, if he showed up at the door. Everywhere in the Gospels Jesus gives joy beyond imagining to those who surrender to his love, dedicate themselves to him, and say yes to his invitation to follow him. Only those who resist his grace are left in sorrow, but it is a sorrow of their own devising. They could end it in a moment by returning to the Lord and answering his call.
We must choose then. The deepest kind of joy is easily within our grasp. And maybe in the end, only one good deed is needed. The deed of choosing Jesus over all other things.
Welcome back to Sister Johanna with a double posting that fits well with tomorrow’s feast of Mary Immaculate, as the second article makes plain. Great as she is, Mary is one of us; eternal life did not always come easily for her.
Master, what good deed must I do to possess eternal life?
This is the question asked of Jesus by the one who is forever described but never named: the rich young man. I know this story well. I can’t begin it without a little sinking feeling in my soul because I know how it will end. I have come to call the person who asks this question ‘the poor rich young man,’ poor in the sense of deeply unfortunate. He walks away from Jesus. What could possibly be more tragic? But let’s not get ahead of the story. Lectio divina is a practice of reading bible passages slowly, even the ones I know well, in order to give the Holy Spirit time to lead me into a new understanding of God’s life in me.
So, what happened this time when I read? Well, in the very first line, I was taken aback by the fact that this young man asks Jesus about a ‘good deed’ – in the singular. I must have been in a feisty mood this morning, for I felt that had I been there with Jesus and that young man, I’d have been tempted to toss my head disdainfully and, hands on hips, invite this well-dressed specimen of human affluence to tell me why or how he could possibly imagine that only one good deed would suffice to attain heaven? But, had I done so, I would not have been a help to Jesus. His ways are not my ways.
And his way is almost always a puzzling one. Jesus says to him,
‘Why ask me what is good? There is one alone who is good. But if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.’
This time, as I puzzled over Jesus’ words once again, I asked the Lord in prayer why he had said, ‘Why ask me what is good?’ It seemed so dismissive. And something immediately occurred to me: perhaps I was putting the accent on the wrong word and misunderstanding the question. The point Jesus is trying to make, maybe, is not ‘Why ask me what is good?’ but ‘Why ask me what is good.’ Jesus might be trying to remind the young man that the one who alone is good, the Father, has already made it perfectly clear what we need to do in order to attain eternal life. Keep the commandments. There is no mystery here, and no need to ask the question. The answer has been there since the beginning of the covenant. “Why ask at all?” Jesus seems to be saying to the young man.
The young man seems to understand Jesus, and to Jesus’ remark, ‘Keep the commandments,’ replies, perhaps with some defensiveness, ‘Which ones?’ And immediately, I’m on my high horse again. I am tempted to toss my head and snort, “Oh, come on! Don’t be such a goon. All of them! There are only ten, after all! Or maybe you’re hoping that Jesus will give you a bargain, reduce the price, give you heaven for, maybe, five of the commandments rather than all ten. Your preoccupation with expense is exposed here. For you, this is all about reducing the cost, isn’t it? If you can buy heaven for less than ten commandments, you’ll consider it.” And it could be that these uncharitable thoughts of mine have some truth in them. But, again, Jesus does not handle the matter my way at all.
I would like to pause here for today and climb down off my high horse. Tomorrow, perhaps in a kinder mood, I’ll resume my reflection.
Moses said to all the assembly of the children of Israel: This is the word the Lord hath commanded, saying:
Set aside with you first-fruits to the Lord. Let every one that is willing and hath a ready heart, offer them to the Lord: gold, and silver, and brass, violet and purple, and scarlet twice dyed, and fine linen, goats’ hair, and rams’ skins dyed red, and violet coloured skins, setim wood, and oil to maintain lights, and to make ointment, and most sweet incense. Onyx stones, and precious stones, for the adorning of the ephod and the breastplate. Whosoever of you is wise, let him come, and make that which the Lord hath commanded.
Moses had come down from seeing God on Mount Sinai to find the people dancing around the golden calf, made from their jewellery. His hopes for the birth of a god-fearing nation were shattered, along with the tablets of stone bearing the Ten Commandments, God’s route map through the desert.
But he went back up the mountain, received anew the Commandments, and returned to the Assembly. While the priests were getting ready to perform properly the Temple ritual, Moses challenged the people to be generous in providing materials for the Tabernacle, or mobile Temple. Many of these precious items had been given to them by Egyptians who were probably glad to see the back of them after the final plague, killing off the firstborn.
What am I being asked to give up at this time? Money, the loan of my tools, my time and talents? Whatever it may be, let me give it readily, willingly.