Saturday, September 8, 2012

Thoughts Inspired by the Epistle of James

If a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, "Have a seat here, please," while to the one who is poor you say, "Stand there," or, "Sit at my feet," have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

Few subjects come up with as much regularity in our Sunday readings and all the commentaries that issue forth from those readings than the subject of rich and poor. You probably know most of the famous stories and sayings: it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven; give up everything you have, sell, give to the poor and follow me; the widow’s mite, Jesus the poor baby in the manger, Jesus the champion of the poor, St. Francis and Lady Poverty, the list in both scripture and tradition goes ever on and on.

Without devising program or remedy, Jesus consistently teaches that something is out of balance in our civilization’s relationship toward wealth, but the nature of those teachings is often hard to figure. He goes after the money changers in the temple, but gleefully sends Peter to get a gold piece out of a fish to pay the temple tax. He teaches that “For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” On balance, it seems safer to be rich. Without money to buy the things we need we cannot thrive; not only physically does poverty cast people to the margins, cutting off decent nutrition, decent housing, and decent health care, but the spiritual and psychological blows are terrible: poverty brands us failures. To be poor in our culture is to feel expendable. The same was true in Jesus’ day. People too poor to make it on their own were sold into slavery. To be poor is to be completely at the mercy of others.

I have always been uncomfortable with the church’s teachings on poverty. While I can relate to those wonderful saints like Basil, Francis and the Desert Fathers and Mothers who went joyously off the grid like early day homesteaders in Alaska, choosing to forgo the distractions of this earth, that’s not the same thing as the poverty I see in Haiti or the streets of Oakland. In one case, the people embraced a discipline of simplicity and an acceptance of hardship, in the other, hardship is just hardship. And this is without mentioning the wealth and power controlled by the Church for so much of its history, preaching an ethic of doing without, from a palace. 

Remember that last Sunday, Jesus warned us against hypocrisy!

One of the things that bothers me about where I always tend to go is that it is dualistic. It is just too easy to turn rich and poor into opposing categories, into the very distinctions we make among ourselves that the author of today’s Epistle is warning us against. How many of us could walk into a room at a homeless shelter or a soup kitchen and not instinctively make a kind of distinction between us and them? It’s like that old mind bender, “You can think about anything you want as long as you don’t think about tigers.”

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