Occasionally, in hearing confessions, I encounter a penitent who has been away from the sacraments for a number of years. When it comes time to assign a penance, I pause, for “Say ten Hail Mary’s” seems to trivialize the significance of someone’s being reconciled to God and to the Church after so long a time. Instead, then, I ask him to read one of the Gospels in its entirety, not all at once, but reflectively, over the next week or two. And invariably, I assign the Gospel of Luke. And why? because it combines what C.S. Lewis termed an “irresistible tenderness” with an “intolerable severity.” What could be more comforting to a repentant sinner than the parables of the prodigal son and the good Samaritan? For he can identify with the prodigal son—in that he, as a sinner, has abused and wasted his inheritance—and with the man who had fallen among thieves—for he has experienced the care of Jesus, the good Samaritan. But, granted all this, what shall we make of Jesus’s severity, condemnations, really, a sample of which we have just now heard: “Woe to you who are rich, . . . woe to you who are full now, . . . woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep”?
In what time I have, I would like to explore the first of the blessings—“Blessed are you who are poor”—and its parallel in the first of the woes—“Woe to you who are rich.” Strange as it may seem in our materialistic age, the Bible is replete with favourable references to poverty and the poor. In the Old Testament, God’s concern for the poor is found in the many references to widows and orphans: “Leave your fatherless children; I [the Lord] will keep them alive; and let your widows trust in me.” Why this should be so is clear once one notes that a widow or an orphan was not a member of a family. In the tribal society of ancient Israel, their condition left them without social status or even means of livelihood, as we see in the book of Ruth when she was reduced to gleaning in the fields of Boaz to feed herself and her mother-in-law, Naomi. As a result, the worth of society in God’s eyes was determined by its treatment of its most needy members, of which widows and orphans were paradigmatic. A similarly disadvantaged person was the barren wife, who by her plight attracted the compassion of God. Such a woman is presented as the ideal recipient of God’s loving intervention: Sarah, who bore Isaac the son of the promise; Rachel, the mother of Joseph; Hannah, whose son was Samuel. In her paean of praise after his birth Hannah proclaimed, “He raises the poor from the dust . . . and makes them sit with princes,” a sentiment echoed by Our Lady in her Magnificat: “He has exalted those of low degree, . . .but the rich he has sent empty away.” What quality of these various outcasts makes them admirable and models for us even today? It was their utter reliance on God as their only helper. Furthermore, by this trust, they encapsulated the destiny of the whole nation, for the people, too, learned that God alone could restore the fortunes of Israel that had suffered one crushing defeat after another under her human leaders: “Give us help from trouble [Lord], for vain is the help of man.”
The startling and literal accomplishment of these expectations is found in the person of Jesus, the Word Incarnate, who confirmed and extended the call to place all our trust in God alone. The poverty of Jesus, who had nowhere to lay his head, was, it seems, the necessary means for him to accomplish the great work of man’s salvation, for it was to no human agency that Jesus turned. He spoke and he worked wonders, but never once used money, prestige or power—much less violence—in his ministry. His poverty was perfect when he hung naked on the cross, the greatest moment in human history. Saint Paul gloried in this fact: “[I preached] nothing among you but Jesus Christ, and him crucified,” for “though he was rich, for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” The root and flower of his salvific work are located in his total dependence on his heavenly Father, a dependence in which we as his disciples are summoned to share: “This is eternal life, that they may know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”