The subject of Christian vocation, wealth and poverty has been frequently debated and quite often misunderstood. On one side Christians argue that Jesus calls all his followers to renounce wealth in order to enter the kingdom of God. On the opposite Christians have argued that wealth is good, desirable and a great blessing to be pursued by all believers. The truth is that both extremes are wrong. It would be so easy if one were right but the biblical evidence will not support either of these positions.
First, wealth can be embraced and used wisely by faith. The first Christians were often poor, but not exclusively so. As I read through the New Testament recently I noted again that there were clearly some wealthy people in the early church. And the Old Testament reveals that many godly people were also wealthy, even extremely wealthy in some cases. (God never condemns this fact!)
Over time the gospel penetrated into Caesar’s household and men and (especially) women of means became patrons and disciples of the faith. The apostles never told such people to sell their possessions and give them all away. They did clearly charge these wealthy Christians to be generous, to give with great liberty and joy. I think a strong case can also be made for living modestly without ostentation and a showy consumer-driven lifestyle.
Second, some believers were called by the Holy Spirit to live in poverty (to be sub-merged in this world as my friend John Hayes puts it) because these were the circumstances in which the gospel found them and/or these were the circumstances in which they could best serve others who were poor and God called them to this way of life and service. Within a few centuries some Christians were called to a mission among the poor and in this calling they took a vow of poverty. One can think of great reformers like St. Francis in this light. Mother Teresa comes to mind in the modern world but there are thousands of such people that most of us have never known about.
Most of us know no one personally who has been called to live and serve in poverty. This is a huge tragedy! When Christians talk about solving poverty and know no one who is a Christian living in poverty they prove to be theorists with little or no real understanding of the nature of poverty or of what it does to real people. Few of the “real poor” are in most of our congregations so we have no idea how this problem shapes lives in a myriad of harmful ways.
I believe the basic principle is clear. All Christians are called to charity but not all to poverty. Father Cantalamessa noted this in his Lenten sermon that I quoted from the past two days when he said, “The aim [of sharing in love] was not to make everyone poor, but that none of their members should ever be in want.”
If this is right, and I believe it clearly is, then the new global context calls upon all of us who have much, which includes most of those who read this blog, to embrace charity with a more open spirit and intelligent social theology. What is lacking is both the theology and the will to serve.
“Service,” said Father Cantalamessa, “is a universal principle; it applies to every aspect of life: the state ought to be at the service of its citizens, politics at the service of the state, the doctor at the service of his patients, the teacher at the service of his pupils, etc. But it applies in an altogether special way to the servants of the Church.”
Service is not, in itself, a virtue. It flows from various other virtues, “especially humility and charity” adds Cantalamessa. “It is one way in which that love which ‘does not pursue selfish interests, but those of others',’ manifests itself, and gives of itself without seeking any return. Service in the Gospel is unlike service in the world, [it] is not the proper characteristic of the inferior, of the one in need, but rather of the superior, of the one who is raised high.”
Consider what he is saying:
1. Service is universally important and commonly recognized by ordinary people as such.
2. Service applies to every aspect of life.
3. The state should serve its people, politics serves the state, etc.
4. The servants of Christ have a unique calling to serve because of their Lord’s example and his teaching them to serve as he did.
5. Service flows out of virtues such as humility and charity.
6. Service manifests itself in a way that expects nothing in return.
7. Service is not an expression of my being superior to the one I serve but the exact opposite; i.e. I am the inferior serving the one who is greater! This makes Christian service radically “other worldly” as theologians have put it.