Archive for poor

Missing the Point of the Widow’s Mite

Posted in Social Justice, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on November 11, 2012 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Today’s Gospel from Mark is a bit more complicated than most people might initially think. The story about the “widow’s mite,” when Jesus and his disciples sit near the Temple and see an impoverished widow put in two coins that in and of themselves are not worth much, but presumably represent a significant portion of the woman’s resources, presents us with a comment from Jesus that has been largely interpreted in one particular way.  Jesus responds to this scene with the line: “Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.” A classic reading of this remark has rendered the widow a hero, someone worth emulating, a selfless giver who gives until it hurts, and so on. However, this may not be what Jesus is really getting at in this passage.

We cannot read the story about the widow’s offering without taking into consideration the few verses that immediately precede this text.

In the course of his teaching Jesus said to the crowds,
“Beware of the scribes, who like to go around in long robes
and accept greetings in the marketplaces,
seats of honor in synagogues,
and places of honor at banquets.
They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext
recite lengthy prayers.
They will receive a very severe condemnation.”

Prior to witnessing the widow’s offering, Jesus had been teaching his disciples about some systems of social inequity, of imbalance in the religious, political, and social structures of his day. This is not simply to contrast the wealthy with the poor, those who have a “surplus of wealth” from which they offer their gifts at the Temple versus those who have only their subsistence from which to draw. No, Jesus is painting a much starker picture that is, in effect, more about the wealthy scribes than it is about the poor, destitute widow.

I would venture to say that if you think that this Gospel passage is about the widow or about how honorable the poor are for being generous, you’re missing the point.

The Gospel passage for this Sunday in full (Mark 12:38-44) is a two-parter. In Act I (to borrow the theatrical division popular with NPR’s This American Life) we see a religious and political system that is run by a few wealthy and powerful individuals in the culture. These are the entrepreneurs of the religious establishment, who “as a pretext” to fleecing the poor and the vulnerable “recite lengthy prayers” in show of their religious commitments and to paint the financial exchange as “of God.”

These scribes about which Jesus warns the disciples to be wary use their social location, power, and wealth only for themselves. Sure, Jesus points out, they “give to the church” (to use a modern phrase), but they do so only in the most superficial and painless way. Their real concern is themselves, maintaining their wealth, and shoring up their hegemony at the expense of the poorest and most vulnerable of their time.

Jesus clearly condemns this.

Then we get Act II. Here Jesus and the disciples are hanging out across from the Temple treasury, not necessarily on purpose, but they happen to be there and happen to do a little “people watching.” They see what’s going on, who is offering what. And, as if by chance or coincidence, a poor widow (which was, in truth, the only type of widow, because they were often counted among the poorest, most vulnerable, and voiceless in first-century palestinian society — they have no security, no claim on property, no protection, and little resources) comes and puts in a sum that represents all that she has.

This is not an opportunity to praise the widow, but a chance to lament the disgusting injustice that creates the condition for this scene. The widow’s offering is an illustration of what Jesus was just talking about — the religious, political, and social establishment has systematically corrupted her way of thinking such that she apparently feels compelled to give far beyond what likely hurts her and anyone, say children, that might depend on her.

The real question that lies beneath this Sunday’s Gospel is: What is the reason that someone who has nothing feels compelled to give from that lack to the Temple (or church or charity or whatever)? Who seeks to benefit from this exchange? We know who certainly stands to lose.

A reading of Jesus’s comments that appears to hold the widow up on a pedestal is, I believe, a perpetuation of this injustice that inflicted the widow of Jesus’s time and continues to affect the poor and vulnerable in our day.

A few years back, while reflecting on this reading, I wrote about a New York Times Magazine article that highlighted the myth of philanthropy and the “benefits to the poor” of having the super wealthy (“Today’s Parable of the Widow’s Mite“). What this well-researched article revealed was that the super wealthy, the wealthy and ostentatious “scribes” of today, actually give less than those who have middle and lower incomes. Most absurdly, what Jesus observed in his day remains true today — those with the least continue to give more, by percentage of their resources, than the wealthy!

Jesus is not endorsing this behavior, but blatantly naming it for what it is (especially when we read the full text with vv. 38-40 included about the Scribes) and challenging us to see the structures that allow this to continue. What can we do to make society and the our faith communities more equitable? Why do we let this continue to happen such that the poor give until it hurts and the wealthy seem to so often benefit from this self-defeat of the impoverished?

Hopefully this Sunday we don’t miss the point of the widow’s mite, but instead follow Jesus’s line of thinking and make a difference in our world.

Photo: by Amy Pectol

Some Daily Wisdom from Dorothy Day

Posted in Social Justice with tags , , , , , , on February 9, 2012 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Written during the height of World War II, Dorothy Day wrote in The Catholic Worker about her views on Christian nonviolence and poverty. I think that insight still speaks prophetically today. Here are a few excerpts…

“We are still pacifists. Our manifesto is the Sermon on the Mount, which means that we will try to be peacemakers. Speaking for many of our conscientious objectors, we will not participate in armed warfare or in making munitions, or by buying government bonds to prosecute the war, or in urging others to these efforts. But neither will we be carping in our criticism. We love our country and we love our president. We have been the only country in the world where men and women of all nations have taken refuge from oppression. We recognize that while in the order of intention we have tried to stand for peace, for love of our brothers and sisters, in the order of execution we have failed as Americans in living up to our principles.” — January 1942

“As we have often quoted Dostoevsky’s Father Zossima, ‘Love in practice is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.’ Our Catholic Worker groups are perhaps too hardened to the sufferings in the class way, living as they do in refugee camps, the refugees being, as they are, victims of the class war we live in always. We have lived in the midst of this war now these many years. It is a war not recognized by the majority of our comfortable people. They are pacifists themselves when it comes to the class war. They even pretend it is not there…But we cannot keep silent. We have not kept silence in the face of the monstrous injustice of the class war, or the race war that goes on side by side with this world war.” — February 1942

Photo: Robert Lentz, OFM

What is the Mission of Christ in Our Lives?

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on February 2, 2011 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

I happen to love the Gospel of Luke, like so many others do. Although we are in Liturgical Cycle A for the Sunday Lectionary, which brings us the Gospel of Matthew weekly, I find myself returning to Luke time and again in my own prayerful reflection. There is just so much there: the Canticle of Zechariah, the Magnificat, the Annunciation — and this is just the first few chapters!

I found myself looking over what is sometimes called Jesus’s commision, or perhaps more aptly, his “mission plan,” which is found in Luke 4:16-22. He returns to his hometown of Nazareth to read from the book of the Prophet Isaiah and then announces that what has been heard is now fulfilled in the life and ministry of the proclaimer of that word: Jesus of Nazareth.

Being the Franciscan friar that I am, it occurred to me to take a look at the commentary of St. Bonaventure on this passage. Unlike contemporary academic scripture commentaries, this medieval commentary contains little etymological or strictly exegetical material (at least as we conceive of it today) and instead offers a spiritual interpretation of the reading.

Bonaventure has an interesting take on this passage, using an interpretive lens drawn from the teaching of Jesus that immediately follows his reading of the prophet. The medieval Franciscan says that there are four “notes of excellence” or characteristics of Christ that are revealed to us: Jesus is mediator, teacher, restorer and rewarder (mediator, eruditor, reparator, retributor).

It seems fitting to me that if we are to follow in the footprints of Christ, living the Vita Evangelica (Gospel Life), then it would make sense to model our mission in this world, our life plan after that announced by Jesus himself. I think that Bonaventure’s take on Jesus’s mission offers us something to think about and guide us.

  • We are to be mediators: Bonaventure says that it is through the Holy Spirit, the in-dwelling of God’s breath, that Jesus is a mediator. One mediates the will of God, in the Spirit, by fulfilling the prophecy of Daniel 9:24 (Bonaventure adopts the Vulgate translation): “vision and prophecy may be fulfilled. And everlasting justice may be fulfilled.” We are mediators of God when we see the world as it is — vision and prophecy — and announce the justice of God in our world, calling to task those who are unjust and speaking the message of peace and justice of God.
  • We are to be teachers: Bonaventure believes that we are, as Christ was, called to be teachers through our preaching the Good News of God. Exemplified in the preaching good news to the poor, this characteristic of the mission of Christ is important today. We read that, “Now it is said that he [Christ] is to preach this good news especially to the poor, because he began by preaching to the poor.” So too, we are called to teach the world that God’s favor is indeed with the poor and those who work for justice — God has a ‘preferential option,’ we might say, for the poor.
  • We are to be restorers: Christ forgave sinners and healed humanity from, as Bonaventure influenced by Augustine says, “the evil of original sin.” We too are called to “give sight to the blind,” through forgiveness in our daily lives. Those who sin are like the blind, unable to see clearly the way one should walk. Our love, following Christ, must be the source of our engagement with others, offering forgiveness and understanding instead of hostility and retribution.
  • We are to be rewarders: Not seeking the reward, but offering our selves in relationship with others. Christ is said to reward those who live in the Spirit, following the will of the Father. Christ most perfectly followed the Father’s will in his service to the poor, teaching, healing and forgiving. So too, we are baptized to do likewise.

While imperfect in many ways, Bonaventure’s take on the mission of Christ as proclaimed in the Gospel of Luke offers us some wisdom on which to reflect. How is it that we can live more like Christ in following the mission we were baptized into?

Poverty, Duns Scotus and the New York Times

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on January 19, 2011 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

There is a very interesting (and somewhat humorous) line in the original manuscript of Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain that was edited out because it was one of many seeming tangential soliloquies the young Merton included in his book about John Duns Scotus. While generally overlooked until recently (a scholarly effort that I have been engaged in for some years now), Merton was fascinated with the Medieval Franciscan philosopher-theologian and highly influenced by Scotus.

Merton’s comment has to do with the fact he believed Scotus to be essentially communist in that the Subtle Doctor asserted that it was God’s original intention for no one to own private property, but share all in common. Merton was likely referring to a passage in Scotus’s Oxford commentary (Ordinatio IV, dist. 15, q. 2) where the Subtle Doctor writes: “In the state of innocence neither divine nor natural law provided for distinct ownership of property; on the contrary everything was common.”

It should be stated outright that the negative connotations the term ‘communism’ has today (and really since the McCarthy era of U.S. politics and Cold War rhetoric) was not necessarily present in Merton’s use of the term. Nevertheless, the notion of a classless society and shared resources in a spirit of equity does align itself very clearly with the Christian Gospel and Religious life — something that was not lost on the young Merton, and something that remained with even the more mature Merton decades later.

The reason I thought of this nearly unknown passage from Merton and the subsequent Scotus source is because of today’s New York Times editorial titled, “Poverty and Recovery.” The statistics about poverty in the United States over the last 2+ years is staggering.

In an age when so many of the fiscal and social conservatives, those intent on “eliminating Government spending,” identify their political efforts and agenda with their personal ‘Christian’ faith, a news flash is needed to speak some truth to these politicos: Such action is contrary to the faith, not in the least compatible with their purported Christianity.

Merton and Scotus are correct (insofar as one takes Merton’s youthful and anachronistic comment about Scotus being ‘communist’ in stride) when they assert that it is neither Divine nor so-called Natural law that permits private ownership. Ownership, as Merton writes elsewhere in lecture notes from the early 1960s, is only legitimate when someone has a right to private property. According to both Scripture and the Franciscan theological-philosophical tradition, no one has a right to private property.

Such a reality is simply the product of human convention. It is fallible and it has not always been the case.

Rhetoric oriented to garner support for the elimination of public governmental assistance to the least among us is sinful at best and more accurately described as abhorrent. No one should dare invoke the name of Christ for such clearly anti-Christian movements.

The Times reports: “With 14.5 million people still out of work, and more than 6 million of them jobless for more than six months, reducing federal help now will almost ensure more poverty later. That would impose an even higher cost on the economy and budget because ever poorer households cannot spend and consume.”

Without regard for the moral imperatives explicitly contained within the Christian tradition, it makes little long-term fiscal and societal sense to reduce federal assistance for the poor in our country. It will only allow for more to hit the poverty level and increase the already shameful disparity between the haves and have-nots of this nation.

The gap is set to only grow wider if such behavior persists and the saddest irony is that those who have the most to lose in the process are, it seems, the first in line to be the pawns of the wealthy and powerful, advocating as it were the acceleration of their own abjection.

Tax cuts for the wealthy only makes the rich richer and leaves the poor carrying the heavy crosses imposed on them by the political pharisees who do not condescend to help with burden. The Franciscan perspective on this matter is simple: there is no Divine or Natural right to private property, so no one should complain that those who have more are conscripted to assist those with less. Because, if God did not give some more than others, those with more simply appropriated that wealth on their own accord.

There is only one Gospel and it is the Good News of Jesus Christ, not a self-justifying pseudo-gospel of prosperity.

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