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Eighteenth Sunday of the Year

Teaching Poverty

As an illustration of the evils of greed the parable in today’s Gospel is off the mark. The rich man merely seems to be reacting with surprise to unforeseen success. His harvest has been more abundant than anticipated and he doesn’t know what to do with the surplus. “Hey, I’ll build bigger barns…” What else could he do?

If greed is an inordinate desire for wealth, it’s not clear that this rich man is being greedy. Apparently he desires nothing more than a comfortable retirement. Most people desire that. The parable seems rather to be saying: don’t save up now for a comfortable retirement because, you foolish man or woman, you won’t live long enough to enjoy it!

To a different rich man our Lord once said, “Go, sell all you possess and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven (Mk: 10:21).” But economic redistributionism is not the point of today’s Gospel parable. Unless one lifts the parable out of context and thus makes it into ideology. Bizarrely, this would turn the parable upside down, and direct its message to the wrong people.

Let me be clear. There is plentiful evidence in the Scriptures, in the teaching of the Church and not least in the homilies of the present Holy Father, to make it obvious that the rich are going to have a hard time at judgement. The Lord demands much from whom he has given much.

But the demand being made in the context of this parable is not that of the Lord at judgement, nor even that of a rich man having to give account. The demand made to the Lord is from someone else. “Someone in the crowd said: “Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.” It’s to this ‘someone in the crowd’ that our Lord tells the parable. Some might expect the Lord to have affirmed the importance of sharing. He might even have given a lecture on economic justice. Instead he warns against greed, not the greediness of the rich but the greediness of someone who wants to be rich, at least richer.

A favorite catholic writer of mine once put into the mouth of one of his priestly characters: “We must think very carefully before we teach poverty to the rich lest we make ourselves unworthy to preach it to the poor.” To the poor? you’ll ask. So did the other priestly character in the novel. The reply was emphatic: “Yes, to them the Good God sent us first and to teach them what? Poverty!” Read the context of Luke’s Gospel, Chapter 12, and Jesus is not preaching against the scourge of poverty (at least not here anyway)—but in poverty’s favour, for anyone who would be his disciple.

By all means Christians and people of good must be active in promoting economic justice, a more generous sharing of human and earthly treasures. Those with more helping those with less is a Christian duty. But giving to the poorer monetary values in place of gospel values isn’t going to ensure them a comfortable retirement either. “Thus it will be for [anyone] who stores up treasure for himself but is not rich in what matters to God.”

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