Poverty and Fullness

LTC-brjohn-clean

“I know what I shall do, so that when I am removed from management people will receive me into their homes.”. . . The master praised the wicked household manager because he acted cleverly. Indeed the children of this age are more clever towards their own generation than are the children of light.

Luke 16: 4,8

The parable of Jesus in today’s gospel from Luke is often a very difficult one for us. To read it in light of its entire context, however, reveals that, at least in part, it is speaking to the relationship between our inner commitment to God and our practical use of possessions. Too often we see and live our “spiritual lives” in a somewhat schizophrenic manner. We tend to think that we can live an inner disposition of abandonment to God while selfishly and greedily clutching our money and possessions. We somehow think we can have “poverty of spirit” while we obsess about our own physical comfort and gratification. Yet, as Jesus says later in Luke 16:13, “No household servant is able to serve two masters. Either a person will hate one and love the other, or will cling to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Mammon.” We cannot love our own wealth and comfort and love the Lord at the same time.

It is often difficult to understand why it is that the master praises the servant who so radically reduces the debt that others owe the master. There are many attempts to explain this, including the view that the debt the servant has reduced is what he himself is due. The deeper truth of the story, however, lies in the attitude and the conversion of the servant. As the parable begins, the servant is about to be fired because he has “squandered” his master’s possessions. At the very least he has not been careful in his task of attending to and administering responsibly his master’s possessions. At worst, he perhaps has been engaged in some form of misappropriation or embezzlement. Yet, when he is confronted by his master, faced with the moment of “his visitation,” his basic attitude toward possessions turns totally around. He becomes careful where he was careless and generous where he was selfish.

There is no mistaking that Jesus’ claim on our life is absolute. If we love him, we will hate anything that competes with that love, that has the potential to draw our heart in another direction. Everything of this world, including our own lives as well as every created thing and person, is to be “used” by us in light of this primary relationship. As the servant in the parable, we are to see every person, thing, and situation in light of the Lord’s visitation to us.

In this morning’s New York Times, there is an opinion piece co-written by very unlikely collaborators: The Dalai Lama and Arthur C. Brooks, President of the American Enterprise Institute. The authors of the piece wrestle with the phenomenon of deep discontent and anxiety that seems not merely to exist but to be growing among much of the population of the world’s most affluent nations. Their conclusion is that these societies are failing to meet what may be the deepest of human needs: the need to feel useful to others, the “need to be needed.” It is striking, for example, that in the United States, we universally speak of the importance of education for our young people in terms of “their ability to compete in a global environment.” There is, however, a much deeper and more profound human need and so educational purpose than to win the global competition. It is to be “useful,” that is, to see our lives as a unique and mysterious call to the service of others.

We are living through what often seems to be the collapse of western secular culture and of the political systems that have supported it. Perhaps, however, there are new seeds of life in the apparent death and decay. Is it possible for us to recognize that “life is more than food and the body is more than clothing” (Luke 12:23)? Is our deep anger and discontent but a manifestation of a sleeping and un-nurtured spirit? Is it possible that we are as Christians coming to realize that the “visitation of the Lord” cannot be reckoned with a way of living that maximizes our own possession and use of the world’s goods to our own selfish advantage?

Poverty is a core constituent of the Christian life. And that life is not merely an “interior” life; it is a total way of life. Thus, a spirit of poverty must ground our common and ordinary life. As the Fundamental Principles put it:

Your poverty
is to recognize
that all you have and are
comes from God.

We can only know the peace and joy of Christ’s love when our lives are spent, are emptied out in service to others. The more we attempt to fill ourselves, the more desperate and angry, for all our security and all our wealth, we become,  We “cannot serve both God and mammon.” This is a profound spiritual and psychological truth. We are unable to fill our sense of lack and inadequacy, no matter how much we attempt to accumulate. And yet, we actually experience the fullness of our lives when we give to others “from our poverty all . . .[we have] to live on” (Mark 12:44).

The specific eschatological character of the Franciscan message is not expressed in a new doctrine, but in a form of life through which the very life of Christ is made newly present in the world to bring to completion, not the historical meaning of the “person” in the economy of salvation, so much as his life as such. The Franciscan form of life is, in this sense, the end of all lives ( finis omnium vitarum ), the final modus, after which the manifold historical dispensation of modi vivendi is no longer possible. The “highest poverty,” with its use of things, is the form-of-life that begins when all the West’s forms of life have reached their historical consummation.

Giorgio Agamben, The Highest Poverty: Monastic Rules and Form-of Life, p. 143

Tags:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*