22 October 2012

What Matters to God

29th Week OT (M)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

Is Christian poverty a means or an end? I don't mean the sort of poverty that you inherit from your family, but the sort of poverty that a Christian chooses in obedience to Christ. Not destitution or random economic ruin. But the deliberate selection of “being poor” as a response to our Lord's teaching in this morning's gospel. Is that kind of poverty a means or an end? This may sound like a question for nerdy theology-types, but it was a burning question in the Middle Ages, a hard-fought and sometimes bloody battle between two newly minted religious orders—the Dominicans and the Franciscans. The little friars of St Francis argued that poverty is a worthy goal in and of itself and not merely a means to another end. The sons of St Dominic argued that poverty—like chaste celibacy and obedience—serves as a practical means to an evangelical end: the preaching of the gospel. Eventually, the Holy Father—Pope John XXII—silenced the argument by telling both sides to shut up and get on with their ministries.* A wise decision. Why? Because both sides were somewhat missing the point: what matters is what matters to God. 

We all know that storing up treasures on earth will not get us into heaven. We all know the saying, “You can't take it with you.” A seat at the Lord's table can't be bought with gold or stock options. Jesus tells the crowd the parable of a man who wants to tear down his barn and build a bigger one so he can store his harvest. A bigger harvest, safely stored will prompt the man to congratulate himself, “. . .you have so many good things stored up for many years, rest, eat, drink, be merry!” Then God comes along and reminds him of a hard truth: all things in the world pass away, including his foolish life. To whom will all his stuff belong once he's dead? “Thus will it be for the one who stores up treasure for himself but is not rich in what matters to God.” Thus, the question we should be asking has nothing to do with whether or not poverty is a means or an end. The question is: what matters to God? 

Paul reminds the Ephesians that they were once dead in their sins; that they once lived among the disobedient in the desires of the flesh; and that they were all “by nature children of wrath.” Now, they are living, obedient children of God. How? “For by grace you have been saved through faith. . .” By trusting God and receiving His gift of mercy, they are saved. What does this transformation of the Ephesians tell us about what matters to God? It tells us that God is merciful. That it is not His will for us that we live in the darkness of sin. That He loves us despite our transgressions. And that He is willing to abandon His justice in order to show us His mercy. What matters to God is that we are brought back to life through His Christ. That we are raised up with Christ and seated at the harvest table for all ages so that “he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace to us. . .” This is what matters to God. Not gold or stock options or trophies. What matters to God is that we see the “immeasurable riches of his grace to us” and that we in turn share these riches with those who have yet to see them. Poverty—whether a means or an end—strips us bare of pretensions, exposes us to examination, and submits us to the judgment of the world so that we might be witnesses to all that God has done for us. For by grace we have been saved through faith. If you believe that this is true, how do you show the world the riches you have received through Christ?

* This is by necessity a highly truncated and conflated account of what happened.  The controversy spanned almost 200 yrs. and focused more on the OFM's desire to live poverty in a radical way.  More info here.

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  1. Anonymous1:26 PM

    Apropos of nothing, I just watched the videos of the speeches at the Al Smith dinner. Well, Romney's and Dolan's, anyway. I skipped Obama's because Sister Mary Immaculata told us in 2nd grade to avoid occasions of sin.

    Anyhoo, a comment of Dolan's that indicates the sad state of Catholicism. He joked that Pope Benedict had given him a special message for the two candidates, but since he spoke in Latin, Dolan "didn't understand a word of it."

    Even as a joke, a cardinal of the Roman Church saying he knew not a word of Latin.

    As the Prophet Jeremiah would say, "Oy."

    1. I think the joke is that Crdl. Dolan does understand Latin.

    2. Anonymous3:03 PM

      Hope you're right and I just missed the joke.

  2. Hmmm...third paragraph (majority of it) was good, especially liked "Poverty—whether a means or an end—strips us bare of pretensions, exposes us to examination, and submits us to the judgment of the world so that we might be witnesses to all that God has done for us." And I enjoyed the historical allusions in paragraph I, but I didn't think this one flowed well. Choppy in places, though I appreciated the overall message - and you could probably smooth it out with just a few changes/additions.

    1. This one is typical of my writing process: start at A, go to W and end up at Q (maybe). I never start with an end in mind. When I have time I can "match" the beginning and end but I was rushed this a.m. That's my excuse anyway. ;-)

      Got the CD! Thanks.

    2. You're welcome! Hope you enjoy the music. I've gotten to hear them live on several occasions. I'll miss them when I.O. goes off to the Angelicum, but we'll lose him to a good cause.

      Back when I wrote regularly, my "initial-writing" style was similar (A-W-Q). I always envied those people who could come up with a logical, flowing, amazing story/article just by sitting down and writing. I always needed time to modify, edit, start over, etc...:-)

    3. Specially liked that snippet as well...