"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, February 19, 2018

God's Poverty....and Ours

I noted here how I came to read Herbert McCabe, and some of the connections I spied in some of his writings to our father among the saints, Sigmund of Vienna.

Now in this Lenten season, when our focus should be less on our efforts towards fasting and other sometimes suspect "ascetical" works, and more on serving others, the poor above all, I want to draw your attention to a short but compelling sermon in McCabe's God, Christ, and Us.

By the end of my first year teaching here in Indiana, I heard loud and clear from my Catholic students that they had had the what drilled into them rather well by twelve years of Catholic schooling, but nobody had ever explained to them the who. So ever after one of the challenges I set for every class I teach, at least if it bears a THEO prefix, is to help students to understand not just a teaching or even its underlying logic, history, or rationale; but to see how and where God is, how and where, sometimes obscurely or partially, a given "doctrine" points beyond itself, reveals more than itself by revealing God. We are commanded to shun murder and adultery not merely because it makes for more felicitous social relations; we shun them because it is not God's nature to kill or betray those whom he loves.

In this case, then, to the Lenten question of "Why should we help the poor" we must reply not just by way of moral exhortation ("Scripture commands you so to do"), or psychological appeal ("How can we not feel compassion for their plight?"). Scripture, as the venerable scholar Raymond Collins has made clear in a recent study, Wealth, Wages, and the Wealthy: New Testament Insight for Preachers and Teachers, does demand that we help, and does issue dozens of dire warnings about wealth, but why? Is God just the biggest social justice warrior (to use today's infelicitous argot) of all?

Perhaps we can understand why God wants us to help the poor, for we presume that God must be compassionate; but why does He also have to bore on with His condemnations of the wealthy (Matt. 13:22; 19:16ff; Mark 10:23; Luke 16:19ff; etc.)? Why can't God just let us enjoy our wealth and possessions? Even if we recognize the often subtle ways in which possessions and wealth corrupt us, surely that's a risk worth running?

McCabe is helpful here in showing us that, as with all sound teaching, the Christian teaching on poverty and its beatitude, and the Christian condemnation of wealth and possessions, are so because both are an icon of God. In this short reflection, "Poverty and God," McCabe begins by claiming that "the movement from riches to poverty, from having to not having, can be a movement not only to being more human but to being divine." Why is that? It is so because God is poor and has no possessions: "We cannot speak literally of the riches of God. But I think we can speak literally of the poverty of God....He is literally poor because he simply and literally has no possessions. He takes nothing for his own use."

As McCabe continues, "God's creative act is an act of God's poverty, for God gains nothing by it. God makes without becoming richer." To which I would add: God makes and gives without becoming poorer, either. In reflecting on this, my mind freely associated to McCabe's other chapters on prayer, and the rather freeing realization came that, as McCabe counsels, in praying for very real and practical things, we should feel no guilt as though we are somehow depriving God of something, or short-changing others if He gives it to us first. God, in other words, is not sitting on a gigantic but finite bank account from which our prayers function as so many withdrawals, depleting His capital. If that were so, would He have counseled us to pray for our daily bread--rather than asking for bread once in a while or once in a lifetime?

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