Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Let’s say I asked each of you to stand in turn and name one gift you have from God that you use to help other people. What would we hear? I am: good with money, medicine, law, real estate, teaching, learning, prayer, hard work. I am: willing to work, beg, collect goods, sweep porches, mow yards, paint houses, serve dinner. I have: time, cash, good friends with time and cash, transportation, supplies, connections. And I am willing and able to put all these—who I am, what I have, who I know—to work for those who are lost, those who have nothing, and those who know no one. Out of God’s abundance, you are blessed for your prosperity and the prosperity of your family. In humility, you are required to use God’s freely given abundance for the benefit of those who have nothing. This is not about polite “social charity” or “being a good philanthropist.” It is about your salvation—nothing less than a matter of whether or not you will sit at the banquet table at all.
Now, some of you may be thinking, “Prosperity!? What abundance? I’m not prosperous. I got debt; I work paycheck to paycheck; my family is barely scraping by!” As a working-class Mississippi boy who spent way too many years in college racking up student loans in order to get a job that earns me less than a Wal-Mart assistant manager—I hear you, loud and clear! We are not all given treasure as our gift. Not all of us have a ready cash-flow or asset liquidity. But let me quickly point out how quickly we all jumped to the conclusion that prosperity is about money, that our wealth is about a financial portfolio. I would guess that well-over 90% of Catholics in this country aren’t wealthy. And yet, they are required, like you and me, to be generous to those who do without. Prosperity is wealth but not all wealth is treasure and not all treasure is silver and gold and green.
Sirach points to wealth. The mind of a sage. An ear attentive to wisdom. The psalmist sings of wealth as well. The rejoicing of the just and their exultation of the Lord. Bountiful rain and a restored land. Hebrews tells us that those who have approached Mt Zion are wealthy in their experience of the divine. They have seen the city of the living God; seen countless angels partying at the throne of God; watched the assembly of the firstborn; and laid eyes on Jesus, “the mediator of a new covenant.” And! And! we all have an engraved invitation, carved into the flesh of Christ himself, an invitation to the wedding and the wedding feast. Christ is our living invite and our way to the party. Is there any gold or talent or any amount of time, any portfolio or estate worth as much as a place at The Table? Prosperity in Christ Jesus is eternal life; this is our inheritance as adopted heirs of the Father. So, how do we share ALL of our gifts so that we are not bumped, with great embarrassment, to the bottom of the table?
There are the usual ways of charity: donating money and goods to the needy; spending some time doing local service work; help a volunteer group raise funds for travel on a mission trip; go on a mission-trip yourself and work directly with the poor. All perfectly acceptable and much appreciated ways of spreading your prosperity in Christ. Are there other ways? Oh, yes. What about your witness? Your testimony about who Christ is to you, what he has done for you? What about the light of Christ beaming out of your skin? Do you radiate the love of God? This sort of charity—talking about Christ to others—is the sort of charity that makes Catholics extremely nervous! All that “testimony talk” sounds very evangelical Protestant, kinda Baptist, and very personal. It does, I know.
We have managed in this country to submerge our lives in faith into a kind of private vault, locking away the very center of our lives as Christians so that we can function politely in a largely secular culture. Our nation’s anti-Christian cultural elites are so obsessed with not being bothered by our faith, that, at their insistence, we have carefully crafted safe places where our faith might shine out but not shine on them. Church, for example. Maybe the Union Mission downtown. Never the office or our public schools. Never the ballot box or the statehouse. Never, in other words, anywhere the light might actually touch them. We have, I think, become used to this arrangement and we have, as a result of this familiarity, made our witness something to be ashamed of right when it is most needed.
Here’s my challenge to you: think long and hard about your witness: how do you share—out there—who Christ is to you and what he has done for you? How do you spread the wealth of God’s love, His mercy and care, His universal invitation through Christ to come party with Him forever? The public credibility of the gospel depends on Christ’s ministers—you and me and all of us together!—it depends on us sharing the prosperity, the abundance of the Good News preached by Christ Jesus to every man, woman, and child; Jew and Greek; slave and freeman; the gospel preached to everyone with him when he was among us. We must complete the preaching; we must make the teaching whole where we are, and show others the Way. There is no greater work of charity to be done.
Now, let me highlight the trap that lies in wait for those who will be witnesses in this world. As Christians, we do not possess the truth. We are possessed by the Truth. Our preaching and teaching cannot be about lording the correctness of the faith over those who do not share our faith. Truth is truth and truth wins out every time. We cannot be so arrogant as to believe that All of Truth is speakable, pronounceable by a human tongue, especially our flawed tongues! We know what we know, but there is infinitely more that we do not know. In front of this Mystery, we can only stand in silence with humility, trusting that as we grow in perfection God’s revelation will unfold for us. That there is no single owner of the Truth does not mean that there are multiple owners of the Truth. The truth of our faith rests in the Church, the whole Body of Christ; and this truth serves as our well of witness, our river of fresh understanding and utility. When we ourselves become poor and lame and crippled and blind, those possessed by the truth of our faith bring us to the table. So we must be very, very careful to invite to the Lord’s table the poor and lame and crippled and blind among us. Think! How long before I need such an invitation?
From the Word, a final word: You have not approached that which cannot be touched, therefore, My child, conduct your affairs with humility. Go and take the lowest place at the banquet table because he who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. Learn from me, your shepherd, for I am meek and humble of heart. Spread your gifts. Sow your wealth. Be prosperous so that others might survive. Your harvest is mine, therefore, invite to my table those who cannot repay you. And when you do, know that I will repay you at the resurrection of the righteous.