Blessed are the Poor
Eleventh Sunday after Trinity
Jesus lived in troubled times. There were wars and rumours of wars, civil unrest, a high crime rate. People often went hungry, or suffered from illness or acts of violence or terrorism. In fact, things were so bad there were concerns that the end of the world was nigh. There was a time when God’s faithful people had focused their hopes on the earthly Jerusalem, but as that earthly city failed, as all worldly things do, to fulfil the hopes and dreams of its people, so the vision of a new Jerusalem was born. St. John describes it in the Book of Revelation and that vision has caught the human imagination over many centuries. John Bunyan wrote about it in his well-known book, ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’. But that longing for a city of God where justice is done, where joy lasts, peace reigns and beauty doesn’t fade isn’t just a Christian fantasy, it’s a goal to be pursued and a promise of God.
Faith is sometimes presented as being necessarily divorced from evidence. If you can prove something, then you don’t need to have faith to believe it. But that doesn’t seem to be quite what our readings today are saying. They seem to suggest that faith is not an irrational decision to step out into the dark, but something chosen and calculated on the basis of what we already know and have experienced. There is still a strong element of risk and uncertainty, but it isn’t illogical or stupid. It’s based on what we know about God and fuelled by a desire to further that knowledge, to know Him better.
We live in a very fearful world where the threat of terrorist cataclysm or economic meltdown is never far away in the human psyche. I have had to come to terms with a higher level of uncertainty than most people, because I’ve had the sort of cancer that doesn’t usually sit easily with longevity of life. But do you know, someone (not me I have to say) once counted that the words ‘Do not be afraid’ occur 365 times in the Bible, once for every day of the year. God doesn’t want us to be overcome by fear and anxiety, even in troubled times, and even if our health is precarious. That’s why He gives us sufficient evidence to build faith on a sure foundation. And He doesn’t want us to be fearful about the security of our possessions either. That’s why he thinks we’re better off with fewer of them. We need to know, above all, that whatever happens, God is with us and He cares about us. God wants us to rely on Him.
It’s only when we engage with God at the deepest level that we can start to trust Him enough to let go of our desire to acquire in order to protect ourselves against every eventuality. When we do that, when we begin to trust God’s overall plan for eternity even when we can’t see it in the particular set of circumstances we are in at the time , then we discover that God is with us, we can find our security in Him because nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. It’s only then that fear of an unknown future starts to subside.
In fact, God loves and cares for us so much that He says it’s His pleasure to give us the Kingdom, the amazing new Jerusalem that St. John can only begin to describe by using the picture language of precious metals and sparkling gemstones. And God gives us the Kingdom, not through our own efforts and merit, but of His own grace and goodness. Our lasting treasure is to be part of God’s Kingdom. This is why Jesus tells His ‘little flock’ to sell their possessions. He doesn’t want them to be so concentrated on things, that they miss the gift of everything.
Next week we have 2 events that bring home to us the precariousness of our human life and the importance of getting our eternal priorities right. The first on Tuesday is, of course, Duncan’s funeral*. In the midst of life there is death.
The second is on Thursday, 11th August, the Feast of St. Clare of Assisi. It’s worth thinking about what made Clare, a young woman with everything going for her in this life – family, status, wealth, possessions – leave it all behind and embrace a life of total poverty. And it was total poverty – those who joined the Order that Clare founded, known as the Poor Clares, had neither socks, stockings, shoes nor sandals. They slept on the ground, observed perpetual abstinence from meat (and there was no Quorn or tofu in those days) and they only spoke when they were obliged out of necessity or charity. They owned no property or rents, but subsisted on alms or contributions from local people. Yet, amazingly, within a few years there were communities of Poor Clares in Italy, France and Germany, and the Order survives to this day.
So, why did she do it? Well, maybe the answer lies partly in today’s Gospel reading and also elsewhere in Luke’s Gospel, where Jesus says ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God’. Money and possessions aren’t inherently evil, but they tend to be addictive and all absorbing, a bit like Pokemon Go, yet they miss the real point of life. Society attaches a meaning and an insurance value to money and possessions. There’s a tendency to value people in terms of their job or social status, to measure people by their possessions or their income, to think that money buys security. Society has swallowed the myth that material aspiration makes people happy, whereas, in fact, it just makes them fearful. The western world’s materialism has therefore come at a price and that price is contentment.
For St. Clare of Assisi and those like her, poverty was understood as a total dependence on God, and it brought with it a great liberty of spirit. Clare wanted to ensure that she and her sisters were free to focus all of their attention on their relationship with God. Now, hers may not be a lifestyle choice that’s possible for us, but the way we view and use our financial resources is inextricably related to our conviction that the future and our destiny lie ultimately with God. What we believe about the future affects how we live in the present.
Jesus speaks plainly at the end of our Gospel reading because He doesn’t want those who He loves to lose what God has promised them, either through focusing on the wrong things or not being attentive to Him. The promise of the Kingdom depends on the commitment and will of the recipients. Will they give their hearts and minds to God’s project for the redemption of the world? Will you?
‘Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’ Amen.
* Duncan Laxton, Churchwarden at St. Mary's Martham, and Editor of the Parish News for our Benefice, died suddenly on 19th July.