A saying of Mother Teresa that has stayed with me from my 1978 meeting with her in Manila is ‘You can measure the worth of any government by the care it takes of its poorest citizens’.
At a meeting in July to launch the Alternative Welfare Working Group, as our government prepares to institute the most wide-ranging changes to our social welfare system in decades, I was reminded of a reflection I had recently read on the feeding of the five thousand.
‘I believe in the Jesus who fed five thousand simply because they were hungry, not because they deserved it. Many in the crowd on the hillside in the heat of the day had been foolish, I’m sure. They had brought nothing of their own to eat. They had made no provision for their future. They had not been frugal, nor responsible enough to take care of themselves. But Jesus feeds them regardless. He does not ask to see their salary statements or their bank accounts to determine a degree of acceptable destitution. He does not scold, berate or lecture them. He simply gives them what he sees is their need at that moment.
This is the Jesus whose outpouring of self calls me to do the same. The miracle is not that Jesus multiplied bread and fish by shaming the affluent into sharing theirs. The real miracle is that somehow or other the limited resources in that place were shared and became sufficient when none of the apostles there believed they would.’ (Joan Chittister, In Search of Beliefp 63).
A biblical mandate
Presumably we want to take the bible seriously as the norm for Christian identity and action. Certainly the gospel of this year, Luke, would share in the biblical vision that the use of material possessions is significant for the life of faith.
Another way of looking at that is to ask, ‘Is the Christian life a matter of a code of behaviour? Is the bible to be taken as a rule-book of behaviour? Is what we do with material possessions really important for our Christian lives? What duties do we have as stewards of the material possessions we have?
Luke-Acts shows the author’s concern about riches, poverty and the use of possessions. References to these matters are more frequent in this gospel than in any other. He is indeed ‘the evangelist of the poor and we need to reflect on just what exactly Luke wanted to teach his church (and, by extension, us) about the use of possessions. Early on, the hearers of John the Baptist ask, ‘What, then, are we to do?’ (Lk 3:10), setting the tone for a ‘code of Christian life.’
The poor are privileged in the eyes of God; the rich are condemned: Mary, in her Magnificat, praises God with the words, ‘He has filled the hungry with good things, the rich he has sent away empty’ (1:53). The sending away of the rich and the ‘scattering of the proud’ and ‘putting down of the mighty’ (1:51-52) is a sign of the reversal of fortunes and expectations brought about by God’s visitation to his people as Mary’s son. The ‘filling of the hungry with good things’ accompanies the exalting of ‘those of low degree’. The last group are not only those without possessions but those oppressed by their fellow human beings and who must look to God for help, since they can expect none from elsewhere. In time, this group were termed the anawim of Israel.
The Jesus manifesto
Jesus begins his ministry with the flaming words of the prophet, Isaiah (61:1-2), ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor’ (Lk 4:18).
This is clearly intended to announce the kind of messiah Jesus was to be in his word and action. In his first major sermon, on the plain, Jesus begins with a beatitude, ‘Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God’ (6:20).
There is no ‘poor in spirit’ as in Matthew. Luke speaks bluntly of those who lack material goods. Jesus calls them blessed because the good news is addressed to them. Lest we miss the point, Luke alone has added to his beatitudes a series of woes, the first of which reads, ‘Woe to you rich, for you have received your consolation’ (6:24).
When John sends messengers to Jesus to ask if he is the Messiah, Jesus’ response has as its climax the notice that ‘the poor have good news (gospel) preached to them’ (7:22).
The call of the poor into God’s kingdom is also signalled by the parable of the banquet which Jesus told while sitting in the house of a Pharisee (14:16-24). ‘Those who were first invited to the banquet refused the invitation because they were too involved with the affairs of their lives to respond’ (14:18-20). ‘The master grew angry and sent his servants to bring into the banquet the poor, maimed blind and lame (14:21). This is the model for human hospitality, ‘When you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame and blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you’ (14:13-14).
Reference: Johnson, Luke TSharing Possessions: Mandate and Symbol of Faith.