We shall begin by calling attention to some of the basic truths which form the starting point of Christ’s teaching, from which all the rest follows automatically.
GOD IS A FATHER
This is perhaps the most important truth preached by Christ.
Christ is at the same time the witness to and the preacher of the fatherhood of God. Constantly he uses the words “My Father and your Father”. In the parables God appears as the father of a family, an expression which includes the idea of provid-ence as well as the profounder idea of love.
It is St John who lays the greatest emphasis on love. “God is love” (1 John 4. 8, 16), and “if we love one another, then we have God dwelling in us, and the love of God has reached its full growth in our lives” (ibid. 12). The whole of St John’s first epistle is devoted to the identification of God with love.
God is so exalted that when men find him by their unaided efforts they at first ex-perience a feeling of being crushed. They look on God as “the Other”, as a being different at all points from themselves, an attitude expressed in Catholic theology by the term “the transcendence of God”. The wisdom of the East describes God as “the Ineffable”, he of whom nothing can be said. Even Greek philosophy failed to explain how God can be in relation with the world. He is the Perfect, the Omnis-cient, the Omnipotent. The Jews laid most stress on his power. But Christ said: He is the Father, my Father and your Father. He is love.
Love is an abstract idea: in the synoptic gospels God is above all the Father. “When thou givest alms, thou shalt not so much as let thy left hand know what thy right hand is doing, so secret is thy almsgiving to be; and then thy Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward thee” (Matt. 6. 3-4). The same injunction applies to prayer (ibid. 6) and to fasting (ibid. 17-18): “thy Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward thee.”
It follows that our relations with God are personal, like those of a child with its father. The Father cares for us. “He takes every hair of your head into his reckon-ing” (Matt. 10. 30).
Fatherhood is identified with providence, but Christian providence is a loving pro-vidence. Love, fatherhood and providence are three overlapping ideas.
The general picture we carry away is of God as an active person, a “you”, a father to be addressed and trusted and obeyed. “Do not fret then” over your needs; “you have a Father in heaven who knows that you need them all” (Matt. 6. 32).
The Christian attitude is therefore principally one of trust. Most people find this hard of acceptance. Most Christians continue to accept the pagan and Jewish idea of God as an all-powerful tyrant whose favour must be won by flattery, so that our prayers may be granted. They do not trust him. They do not look on him as the loving Father who wishes us well and knows better than ourselves what is good for us. The majority of mankind cannot understand such an idea, in spite of the fact that Christ himself constantly preached it. Men mistrust God, and approach him warily. They cannot surrender themselves to him.
Nevertheless Christ also said: “Ask and the gift will come; seek, and you shall find; knock and the door shall be opened to you.” The apparent contradiction is resolved by trust. If our relation to God is like that of a child to a wise and loving father, we shall give spontaneous expression to everything that comes into our mind; thoughts and feelings as they occur will be revealed to him, in the certainty that our Father in heaven will “give wholesome gifts to those who ask him” (Matt. 7. 11).
The door between heaven and earth lies open for us to pass from one to the other. God is among us, he sees us and watches over us . Life is an unending dialogue between man and God. Nothing is hidden. from. him.
Isaias, addressing the Jews, had said: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, said the Lord, and your ways are not my ways (Jsaias 55. 8). Jesus teaches that our ways ought to be God’s ways, even though we do not understand them. To do the will of my Father in heaven.... He is indeed in heaven, but he is also on earth. God cannot be localized. “The kingdom of heaven will not give entrance to every man who calls me Master, Master; only to the man that does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 7. 21). And the kingdom of heaven is not to be sought for in some imaginary empyrean; it is “here, within you” (Luke 17.21).
All this is so remote not only from our present-day materialism, but from the old religions which placed the abode of God in some inaccessible beyond, that Christianity acquires a unique meaning. It was this fundamental truth that Christ came down to preach, and this “good news” is so far beyond the human range that few can understand it. The true Christian is above all he who accepts the teaching of the fatherhood of God and shapes his daily conduct accordingly.
CHRISTIANITY A SPIRITUAL RELIGION
Christianity, a religion based on the idea of incarnation, changes the whole of life, and yet in some way leaves it unchanged, since the Christian remains a human being . For this reason the world is always baffled no less by Christ than by the Church and the individual Christian. Christ is accused of being at one and the same time both ordinary and extraordinary. The Church is accused of compromising with the world and at the same time of not understanding human nature. The man in the street is uneasy when he meets a Christian, whose values he perceives to be real different: he blames him for the same faults that he finds in Christ and in the Church. Human, too human, inhuman. He would feel more comfortable in the company of a cynic like Diogenes or a yogi who has totally renounced the world; he recognizes the gulf between them and himself, and knows where he is. But with a Christian one never knows where one is. The reason is that Christianity is a spirit-ual religion . The changes it effects take place not in the realm of matter but in the realm of spirit, the realm of the will. It induces a man to do the same things but to do them in a different spirit. The Christian works as hard and at the same tasks as his fellow men, but his aim differs from theirs. Like them, nevertheless, he will take the necessary steps for the successful realization of his purpose.
Christianity is a purely spiritual religion, that is a religion of moral values. “Moral” values are those which appeal only to the mind. For an animal there are no moral values. In mankind eating becomes a moral value in so far as the material act is associated with a value which we call spiritual because it is appreciated only by the mind. Feasting is man’s way of celebrating a wedding or even a religious festival: no animal feasts.
Christianity, while allowing human life to pursue its normal course—for God is sparing of miracles—brings about a change of purpose, and establishes its own scale of values, which are not the values of the world. “My ways are not your ways” : “Blessed are those who mourn”. In accordance with its own scale of values it esteems what the world contemns, and contemns what the world esteems.
To understand the Christian scale of values we must look to Christ, listen to him, and discover what he thinks good for us and what he thinks harmful. Then only shall we understand how a Christian deals with the problem of money and of worldly goods in general.
Moreover, when the young man replies that he has always kept the commandments of the law, it is Matthew who reports Jesus as saying, “If thou hast a mind to be perfect, go home and sell all” etc., whereas in Mark and Luke Jesus simply says, “In one thing thou art still wanting.. This is the most important detail of all, for the text of Matthew provides the basis for the tradition according to which the renunciation of riches is not obligatory. Only the law is binding; renunciation of riches is merely suggested to whoever wishes to be perfect. And a tradition as grown up according to which the poverty mentioned in the Gospels and proposed by Jesus. to the rich young man a mere. recommendation, which need. not be carried out to achieve salvation. This theory. has been put into practice in the rules of religious. poverty.
The tradition, however, encounters serious difficulties.
It can be explicitly stated as follows. A Christian is by no means required to bestow his possessions on the poor, and can surely achieve salvation without so doing . The poverty commended by Jesus is a counsel of perfection; but no man is obliged to be perfect, or even to strive after perfection.
At first sight, when one compares the three texts one is amazed that so important a doctrine should be based on a variant reading occurring in only one out of the three Gospels. For the doctrine is undoubtedly important; it plays a considerable part in the practice of Christian life. Yet the Gospel authors clearly attached little importance to the variant, otherwise they would have paid more attention to it; and in any case it would seem more reasonable rely on the version given by two of them rather than on that given by one alone. Moreover, the words used by Mark and Luke are exactly the same: “In one thing thou art still wanting.”
On the other hand, the commandments first referred to by Jesus, which the young man or the ruler had always hitherto observed, are the commandments of the Jewish law . It is surely incredible that Christ’s additional injunction is merely optional, a suggestion thrown out to any well-wisher who might be disposed to follow him, and that, in short, a disciple of Jesus need do no more than continue to obey the precepts of the Jewish law.
When we consider the meaning of the incarnation and redemption, and call to mind the tragedy of the cross, we must rather be astonished that our Saviour should have appeared on earth simply for the purpose of setting an optional idea before a few chosen disciples. It is true that poverty is not the sum total of the Christian law, but it occupies an important place in the teaching of the Gospels, and Christ’s references to it are not confined to the story of the rich young man. If it is possible for a rich man to be a good Christian while retaining his possessions, what are we to make of the malediction “Woe upon you who are rich”?
In this same parable, moreover, when the rich young man has departed, Christ says: “With what difficulty will those who have riches enter God’s kingdom!” But if they are under no compulsion to give up their riches, where is the difficulty? We appear to be confronted with a course of action which is binding on nobody, yet is essential for entering the kingdom.
A solution to our difficulty may perhaps once more be found by examining another variant in the Gospel accounts. According to Matthew and Luke, Jesus says that it will be difficult for those who have riches to enter God’s kingdom; but according to Mark he says: “How hard it is for those who trust in riches... .“ The delicate variat-ion in Mark’s account is the more striking in contrast with the habitual plainness of his style.
In any case the general situation is clear: Jesus asks the young man to give up his possessions, and the young man refuses; the reason can only be that he clings to them. All our previous quotations assert that a Christian should cling to nothing, but be ready to give up everything for the sake of the Kingdom. “He is not worthy of me, that loves father or mother more; he is not worthy of me, that loves son or daughter more” (Matt. 10. 37). What our Saviour asks of us, we should be proud to give him immediately
In short, Christ’s attitude of mind is very different from that which came later to prevail, even in moral theology The theologian had to deal with average Christians, baptized at birth but unwilling to follow Christ, who are only concerned to save their souls at the least possible cost He therefore tried to restrict his demands to what is reasonable. His views were coloured by his desire to be merciful; in this, as in many other respects, he tried to avoid over-burdening the conscience. Very different was the attitude of Jesus.
The average Christian worships money. He wants as much as he can get, and would prefer to keep what he has and to part with as little as possible. Faced by a divine law which disturbs him with its different scale of values he asks himself just how much he may keep without contravening the law, and how much he should give away in order to “square” his conscience. “Squaring” seems remote from the Gospel point of view. The life to which Christ calls us is a life of whole-hearted love, and whole-heartedness is incompatible with the constant calculation of the extent of our obligations. In practice our “average” Christian is calculating only when it is a question of giving: when it is a question of adding to his wealth he succumbs o every form of covetousness.
No distinction was drawn between poverty and destitution: destitution was preferred , as constituting the last degree of poverty . The last degree of love and sacrifice cannot exist without the last degree of renunciation. The ideal was to possess nothing, in order to possess nothing but God.
Here it is no longer a question of the moderate degree of relative poverty associated with Christ and the apostles. Poverty seems to absorb the whole life of the Christ-ian, and to become equated as it were with perfection.
This tradition culminates in St Francis of Assisi, the “little brother of the poor”. The Gospel texts which preach renunciation of possessions assume such prominence in his eyes that poverty becomes the key to the whole Christian life. St Francis would apply the Gospel texts literally as they stand, sine glossa as he says: and the literal meaning of the Gospel is poverty. He was concerned solely to copy Christ’s exam-ple exactly, and to his contemporaries he seemed a Christ returned to earth.
Nevertheless, as we have seen, Christ did not live the life of a St Francis; he was neither a beggar nor dressed in rags, and there are other things in the Gos-pels beside sermons on poverty.
Whence comes this Christian concentration of the mind on poverty, of which St Francis affords so striking an example? In the first place, poverty is the means or the condition of total surrender to Providence . Poverty alone leaves everything to God, since if I possess nothing, there is no one but God to look after me. St Francis, in the well-known scene in which he returns all his possessions, down to his very clothes, to the father he is forsaking, declares : “Henceforth I shall no longer say: My father, Peter Bernardone, but Our Father, who art in heaven.”
Poverty is therefore primarily a means of relinquishing all possessions but God. God is. our Father; in him we trust; every event becomes a sign of his will; never does our will come between God’s will and our act.
In the second place, it is poverty alone that enables us to love our neighbour whole- heartedly. Every human conflict springs from the love of money. The poor man has nothing, and will quarrel with no one. Love of God and love of our neighbour comprise the whole law.
St Francis of Assisj marks a climax. Others before him had sought for God in total destitution, and the tradition has survived until our own day. But St Francis is “the little brother of the poor”; his life is symbolized by his marriage to “the Lady Poverty”. Poverty brings happiness, because it commits the soul into the hands of God; it is bound up with humility. Jesus loved the humble and weak, and of such are the poor. The Franciscans were called the Friars Minor, a name suggesting humility and insignificance.
Only the poor can truly surrender themselves to God. And since money is the instrument of wealth, it is against money that St Francis fights with all the violence of his passionate nature. The Franciscan friars were forbidden to handle money; money was the accursed thing. If any one offered them alms, they were to let the money fall to the ground rather than accept it. Once when a friar accepted alms and put the money by, St Francis ordered him to lay it down on the asses’ dung in the road.
The only thing that matters is to give oneself to God without reserve. If our life contains nothing but God, it will become a song of gladness. The spirit of St Francis is a mysticism of joy as well as of poverty . It is well expressed in the words “with-out reserve”, which mean to reserve nothing for oneself, whereas money is some-thing kept back, a means of becoming independent of God. When we give ou-rselves to God without reserve, God is our only guide. There is no longer any need to make plans. Every event is determined by the will of God. We can live from moment to moment, because God is in every moment. The Franciscan friar is God’s vagabond, living and content to live on whatever falls from the skies. His enthusiasm is fired by all the Gospel sayings which bid him follow the example of the birds of the air which never sow or reap, and yet the heavenly Father feeds them.
We shall see in a moment that poverty has generally been associated with the mon-astic life, but this is only a matter of custom. The mysticism of poverty appears in every place and in every shape and form, whenever a Christian is concerned with complete self-surrender. Some men, like St Roch and St Benedict Labre, have sought out poverty by living as beggars, not subject to the discipline of any religious order. In the nineteenth century St Joseph Cottolengo founded in Turin a city of the poor for the relief of every form of distress, based on absolute poverty and subsisting on charity from hand to mouth. The cult of poverty is constantly being revived, as an expression of the Christian impulse to trust only in Providence, and as a reaction against the universal tendency of men to assert themselves by relying on material goods and material security . The cult, as we shall see, still survives in new forms suited to present-day conditions.
STANDARDS OF LIVING
For the first time in history a comfortable standard of living is within the reach of all. In former days luxury was enjoyed by the privileged few. The means of raising the general standard of living were limited in the extreme. Once adequately fed and housed, a man had no other use for wealth than as a vehicle for display and a satis-faction of vanity. The rich built themselves vast mansions and palaces, sometimes left uninhabited, smothered in marble and gilding and painted ceilings. The palaces, for lack of adequate heating and lighting facilities, were cold and gloomy. These defects were compensated by a large staff of servants, easily recruited by the rich from the world of poverty surrounding them. The gorgeous clothes of the rich were often no pleasanter to wear than the rags of the poor, but they served as a mark of wealth. The poor man in his sheepskin was as warm as the rich man in his fur-lined coat, but the price of the furs was a token of the wearer’s wealth . In the Gospels, whose background is a hot climate, the wicked rich are described as clothed in fine linen and spending their time in feasting.
Today life has been made pleasanter and easier by the mass production of heating, lighting, transport and sensible and attractive clothes. These amenities are not so much an indication of wealth as a contribution to well-being. Nevertheless, amenities are expensive. Hence the overwhelming and universal desire for money to procure them. And the desire for money is as boundless as the supply of amenities is almost inexhaustible.
In former times an extremely wealthy minority enjoyed a certain extremely limited degree of comfort. Louis XIV in his palace of Versailles was worse off for heating and lighting than a well-to-do working man of our own day. He could summon his musicians to play for him at certain hours, but he had nothing to compare with the simple wireless set which brings music from all over the world to our homes.
Amenities have an irresistible attraction for the majority of mankind. They are the modern expression of the love of worldly goods, and they appeal to wider and wider social circles. The means to acquire them are so numerous and various that most people are obsessed by them. The desire for more amenities begets an ever-increasing desire for more money to buy them. There is a demand for smart clothes, for gadgets and mechanical appliances of every sort, for cars and refrigerators and radios. The more highly developed countries are no longer plagued with hunger, cold or darkness, and social customs are adapted to the benefits of civilization. The masses are thus under constant pressure to raise what is called the standard of living. The man who falls short of his neighbours’ standards experiences a feeling of frustration: he becomes one of the have-nots.
When everyone goes bare-footed, lack of shoes produces no feeling of distress. When everyone wears shoes, shoes become a social necessity, and no one dares appear without them for fear of exposing his poverty-stricken state . No parents would venture any longer to send their children to school or go about themselves barefooted or even wearing clogs, unless they were employed in some trade where clogs have a professional significance . Nevertheless, shoes are a social, not a natural necessity.
But many countries have progressed far beyond the mere question of wearing shoes, and are concerned with much greater refinements of life. Where everybody eats meat and owns a radio, a bathroom and a refrigerator, the man who cannot keep up with the rest of the world feels he is a failure. Yet he is neither destitute nor even poor, except in a very specialized use of the word: he is merely “hard up.
It is possible to be “hard up” in the midst of plenty: all that is required is the failure to keep up with the neighbours. The old picaresque novels are full of aristocrats who starved at home in order to make a good show in public. But in those days this was a fate confined to a restricted class. With the rise in the standard of living and the exacting demands it makes, more and more people feel themselves to be “hard up”.
The rise in the standard of living creates an insatiable and universal craving for material goods. Since most people can acquire only a part of what they want, they feel a sense of privation; for the joy of possession is less than the pain of having to go without what we want. The fact that the streets are lit up at night, and that we can travel by train or bus or underground railway, is no cause for rejoicing; but we cannot bear it if our neighbours have an electric iron or a car while we have none.
Only the exceptionally well off can afford all the available amenities, which is why the number of the discontented keeps pace with the rise in the standard of living.
At the same time the multiplication of amenities develops a craving for material goods more obsessive and widespread than has ever been known. A minority of thoughtful Christians have reacted by cultivating a new feeling for poverty.
A high standard of living is a source of freedom, comfort and enjoyment. When the means of heating and lighting are readily available, when we do not have to worry about getting enough to eat, when we have at our disposal a telephone, a typewriter, a rapid and efficient transport system, and labour-saving equipment for the home, our minds are set free to concentrate on higher things. A Christian who cares for spiritual values and is anxious to be of use in the world will make use of all these amenities.
But he will be their master, not their slave. They are means to an end.
Comfort consists in being well dressed and housed and heated. When there are ample means of enjoying and improving on these amenities, they tend to become a constant preoccupation.
Lastly, the facilities for enjoyment increase with the rise in living standards. Radio and television come to be thought of as indispensable amenities of modern life, while many of the machines which make life easier, such as a motor car, are at the same time sources of enjoyment.
All this has brought about, among good Christians, a reaction in favour of poverty and away from the gross materialism which goes with the preoccupation with com fort and the craving for pleasure, and leads to the selfish pursuit of sensual gratification. Here the problem for a Christian is to distinguish between what enables him to live on a higher plane and what swamps him in material things . In the French Christian family movement, for example, we find an attempt at discrimination, a search for a simple life not involving a return to primitive conditions. There is no going back to cooking on wood or charcoal, no cult of candlelight; gas and elect-ricity are there to be used: but there is a reaction against the rage for more and better gadgets, for labour saving as an end in itself.
This movement gives rise to a number of practical problems. Take as an example a modern domestic invention. A refrigerator enables the housewife to buy food at long intervals and to keep it fresh. On the other hand it provides iced drinks throughout the summer. Now we ought not to reject an amenity on principle, owing to a kind of fear of life, nor ought we to pursue pleasure for its own sake, making it our main object in life. The problem is a delicate one, and is usually insoluble when it arises from an isolated case. It can be solved only in the context of a general attitude towards life which holds firmly to spiritual values, particularly charity, which puts the love and service of humanity before the pursuit of comfort, and, above all, refuses to make the pursuit of comfort for its own sake the sole end of life.
In short, this new spirit of poverty shows itself in a preference for the simple life. When a number of Christian families meet together for a common meal all are satisfied, and all are withstanding the temptation offered by indulgence in comfort and extravagance.
The indifference resulting from this attitude of mind causes no embarrassment, since it has a social character. It frees us from the tyranny of the environment . But it requires Christians to hold together. No individual is strong enough to go against the crowd: failure to observe the conventions stamps a man as an eccentric. Nowadays Christians who wish to live a Christian life must come together for mutual support against the pressure of the environment and must cultivate those spiritual values which are alien to the whole trend of modem society towards comfort.
This new conception of poverty may also be linked to the virtues of moderation and sobriety, both of which are aspects of restraint. Comfort and well-being are neither to be sought for their own sakes nor pursued to extremes. Their value lies in the use to which they are put, which should be for the promotion of the spiritual welfare of mankind. The virtue of restraint presupposes a certain caution, a certain distrust of the temptations presented by material things. It calls for a spirit of reaction against the general trends of modern civilization. To be healthy, however, such a reaction must be more than merely negative: it must spring from a devotion to Christian values, all of which are based on charity.
CHRISTIANITY and MONEY.
Copyright @ 1959. By Hawthorn Books, Inc.
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