Dr Eugene Stockton...

"Is it the poor, or the rich, who will inherit the earth?" by Eugene Stockton

In a blessed country like Australia, even those of us who survive on pensions, should consider ourselves rich compared to the vast majority of the world's people. In recent days I have been reading Fr Eugene Stockton's recently re-published book Landmarks: A Spiritual Search in a Southern Land. Early yesterday I was reading a section where Eugene reflects on these confronting insights of Jesus about the poor and the rich. The subject is particularly pertinent at the moment given Pope Francis's theme that he wants to see "a Church of the poor for the poor" [LINK]. It has often intrigued me that even the wealthy a lot of the time seem to think of themselves as "poor". Don't we all think of ourselves as "poor" to some extent? Eugene has given me permission to reproduce this section from his book on Catholica today as our lead commentary and I will add some further comments to challenge your own thinking on our forum and in the Disqus comments at the conclusion of the article. ...Brian Coyne

The Parched Australian Landscape...

by Fr Eugene Stockton

"Landmarks: A Spiritual Search in a Southern Land" by Eugene Stockton

This reflection is taken from Chapter 4 of Eugene Stockton's book, Landmarks: A Spiritual Search in a Southern Land, which has been recently updated and re-published by the Blue Mountain Education and Research Trust. [LINK].

Australian Setting

As one travels deeper into the Australian outback, the land becomes drier and the vegetation sparser. Examine the ground, parched and dusty, and out of it is seen growing a poor, straggling plant. The same plant growing in the Botanical Gardens would be luxuriant and bursting all over with flowers and fruit, but here in the arid inland it hardly holds its own and is fated never to attain what it might have been. Do not ask the plant if it loves the aridity in which it is rooted, for that spells only deprivation, limitation and poverty. But the plant struggles, it adapts, it copes and it survives against all odds, producing it own kind of brief and precarious beauty.

The parched ground symbolises the condition of poverty, the plant the poor. Here, and elsewhere, perhaps, the poor need no symbol, for they are to be found wherever you care to look: the unemployed, the single parents, the addicts, the needy, the insecure, the handicapped, those who are mean in their own eyes, those in insoluble distress, the limited in mind and spirit, the ignorant, the maladroit, the alienated, the disoriented, the hopeless, the confused, the forgotten, the despised, the unloved, the cheated, the harassed, the powerless, the used — in a word all who live precariously like the plant in arid soil.

The history of Australia in the past 200 years is usually represented as a series of achievements, a succession of people who "made it". But the underside of our history records the cost borne by the original inhabitants and by the greater number of those from overseas who never quite "made it". These two streams have mingled in shared poverty: genocide, marginality, uprootedness, brutality, captivity, exploitation, race and sex discrimination, religious persecution, loss of language and culture, misunderstanding, ill-health, hardship, failure, tragedy and suffering. From this underside of her history, out of the crucible of poverty, a truly compassionate Australia is being formed.

Reality of Poverty

Religious people, when they speak of poverty, are often talking about a charming ideal or a romantic notion, which is the product of rarified "God-speak". Even, or especially, for religious who take it as a vow, poverty should never be idealised. The spiritual value of poverty arises out of real poverty, and real poverty is that which is experienced by poor people. For them it is frankly evil, a limitation and an oppression which holds them back from realising their God-given potential, and which should be removed as far as possible. Let it be written large: TO ROMANTICISE POVERTY IS TO MOCK THE POOR. Liberation theologians are reminding us that idealistic talk by churchmen has led millions of people to put up with poverty passively and fatalistically, when they should have been encouraged to struggle free. Read the bible in its entirety, read the prophets, and be convinced that it was never God's will that people be poor. Again let it be written in bold letters: I DO NOT LOVE POVERTY, I LOVE THE COMPANY I KEEP BEING POOR.

The Company of the Poor

That company goes back to Abraham, when we set out at God's call for a land He would show us. We were like the Bedouin or gypsies today, nomadic herdsmen living on the fringes of civilisation, always suspect to townspeople and accustomed to hard living. We were no sooner in the Promised Land than we were driven by want into the harder oppression of Egypt. But God came to our rescue and made us poor His very own people. After years of wandering in the desert we again settled in the land. There some made good, and the rich and powerful took common cause to exploit the rest of us. We poor were the core of God's people, who remained faithful to Him and He with us. We were the anawim who sought after Yahweh [Zeph. 2:3], as the plant in dry soil thirsts for water, while the self-sufficient felt no such need. It was with the poor that God took sides: in His Law He demanded consideration for the needy, the weak and the defenceless; in the message of the prophets His anger blazed out against the wealthy, the powerful, the lovers of luxury and the insensitive.

A nation, whose heart had strayed from God and His way, was crushed by the Assyrians and the Chaldaeans. And yet, displaced in a foreign land, we poor exiles were found by God and brought back to Our own land. Again as men sought after riches and power as latter-day idols, it was we poor seeking Yahweh who were the remnant of His people and in whom the promises of God remained alive. His promises at length came to fruition in the womb of a poor girl at Nazareth. From among our number a poor artisan arose to announce a New Deal:

He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.

That is: to us who were straitened, without prospects, and down-trodden [Lk. 4:18-19]. In the Beatitudes [Matt. 5:1-11; Lk. 6:20-26], the Charter of the Kingdom, Jesus announced to us poor the happiness of the Kingdom of God, when we will see the world in a new way under the loving guidance of God, when all our longings will be satisfied and the earth will respond to our husbanding, when we will know laughter and comfort and the deep feelings of God showing Himself to us as our Father. But those others who have sought happiness for themselves, with wealth and power as their gods, have no more to hope for from our Father.

With the coming of Jesus, the lot of the poor is changed. It is now good to be poor, for the poor are those for whom Jesus is good news.

The Rich

Are the rich excluded?Are the rich excluded? Frankly, yes. They have no place in Jesus' mission as described by Luke, nor in the Beatitudes as recorded by Matthew. They are explicitly named in Luke's version of the woes, following the Beatitudes [Lk. 6:24-26]. Matthew's expression "the poor in spirit" is often seized on as a safety hatch for the rich. But Matthew still means those who are actually poor, while his qualification "in spirit" simply adverts to the spiritual dimension of their poverty, corresponding to the spiritual nuance of anawim in the Old Testament, i.e. "those who seek Yahweh". Other examples in the gospel bear this out.

When the rich young man [Matt. 19:16-22] approached Jesus, aspiring to something higher than keeping the commandments, Jesus replied:

If you would be perfect,
sell all you have and give to the poor...

But the young man "turned away sad, because he was very rich". In the discussion which followed Jesus observed that,

it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle
than for the rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

Forget softening commentaries which suggest "the eye of the needle" meant a narrow gate in the city walls: when the disciples responded that this was impossible, Jesus reaffirmed "Yes, it takes a miracle!".

In his parable of the rich man and Lazarus [Lk. 16:19-3 1], Jesus depicted the rich man as a jolly fellow who, as far as the story goes, did no wrong — yet he landed in hell. Why? Because a poor beggar lay at his gate. Negligent wealth, or the insensitivity of the rich to the poor, is enough to consign the wealthy to eternal punishment. When the rich man saw no hope for himself, he at least wanted to warn his five brothers of their peril. Abraham replied that there was already plenty of warning for the wealthy in sacred scripture!

In the parable of the rich farmer [Lk. 12:16-21], again the man did no wrong, but wisely made provision for storing his bumper harvest, so he could retire and take it easy on his amassed goods.

But God said to him:
You fool. This night your soul is required of you...

It is clear from these passages, and from the bible as a whole, that the wealthy are in peril of their lives because of their wealth. There is nothing in Jesus' teaching anywhere to soften this conclusion, and no reason not to take his words to mean what they say. Taking to heart the altruistic sentiments of the rich man in hell, we owe it in compassion and kindness to the rich to warn them of the peril they are in. The reason is that those who feel they have everything and are self-sufficient have no call to seek God or find good news in Jesus. They are excluded from Jesus' ministry because he can be good news only to those who are lacking and have space for him to fill. They are excluded also because, in amassing an over-abundance for themselves, they are blocking the poor from a reasonable share of the earth's goods, which are meant for all.

Eugene Stockton. Permission obtained tore-publish this on Catholica 29 Jan 2014.

“The spiritual value of poverty arises out of real poverty, and real poverty is that which is experienced by poor people. For them it is frankly evil, a limitation and an oppression which holds them back from realising their God-given potential, and which should be removed as far as possible. Let it be written large: TO ROMANTICISE POVERTY IS TO MOCK THE POOR.” ...Eugene Stockton

Eugene StocktonFather Eugene Stockton has served as a parish priest and priest assistant to the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry (Parramatta Diocese). He has gained doctorates in theology and philosophy (Sydney) and a licentiate in sacred scripture (Rome). Lecturing for many years in the Catholic seminaries at Springwood and Manly, he has written widely on theology, spirituality, scripture, archaeology, anthropology and social issues.

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©2014Eugene Stockton

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