With the homespun wisdom of all proverbs our first reading gets it about right: give us neither poverty nor riches. Feed us too well and we’ll forget the God at whose table we are fed. Starve us and we’ll turn to crime. Set us, O God, on the proverbial middle way and we’ll do the rest. We’ll care for the orphan, honour the widow, take the stranger into our home, and tread lightly upon this earth. Just give us the wherewithal, the means, the resources—not too much—just enough.
Well, Luke with his usual charm challenges this modest economy. Around the house, moderation may be fine but on a mission, when you’re sent about the work of the kingdom, when you’re an apostle, well, something more is called for. And here’s the pith of apostolic poverty: to be on the road with no bag, no money, nothing to help you on your way, just the clothes you stand up in, and nowhere to stay except the first place that will take you in.
This is a stupid way to get anything done, let alone done well. Where’s the planning, the prudence, the eye for effectiveness. Why set out on a mission without having what it takes? Where’s the wherewithal?
That’s a question for everyone on a mission. Which means us, I’m afraid. This is our mission, our apostolic work: theology. To study it, to teach it, to practice it. Everyone of us, is here because we have been sent—by a superior, by a community, by a family—with the word of God whispered softly in our heart, or burning in our bones.
It’s our mission. Some of us are here gladly, some grudgingly. Some of us easily, some struggling to make ends meet. What does it mean to be on this mission, sent here, and be poor? What does it mean to be on this mission and to not have what it takes? To not have the wherewithal?
A few weeks into the Semester we are all, perhaps, discovering once again what it is like to not have what it takes! … There’s a kind of intellectual poverty which is so at home in a theology school because if theology can’t reduce you to uncomprehending confusion then nothing can! You can build houses and do it well or not. You can paint pictures, plan economies, bake bread. You can be a physicist or a poet. You can dig ditches. You at least stand a chance of doing these things well, of not making a hash of them. But, theology? How do you speak of the God beyond all speech? How do you name the one beyond all names? Or make sense of the one who makes you? The ever-elusive God among us.
If we let theology get under our skin, if we let it burrow into our brains, it’ll find a way to make us poor. It’ll rattle our faith, subvert our certainty. It’ll reveal the destitution of our hopes, and break our hearts.
To speak of God is folly! But with Jeremiah the words burn in our flesh and will be spoken, even if they issue, inarticulately, from trembling lips. … We are called here, … called by someone we love, called for a reason.
So we put ourselves stupidly in the path of brain-ache. We stare blankly at the blank computer screen. We agonise over the gap between our desires and our deeds. We open our mouths to express the inexpressible. Theology … stumps us. We don’t have what it takes: we’re poor. Without the wherewithal.
And that may be what saves us. It may be the one thing we have in common with God. When we risk everything we value, and hazard failure, perhaps then we are closest to our Maker, closest to the God who stoops down into nothing and makes this beautiful, surprising, unfolding, unexpected world of life and possibility. And makes it out of nothing. Perhaps our poverty is the closest we get to sharing God’s own risk in creating: the risk that nothing good can come from nothing. The risk that it will all be wasted, ugly, unwanted. It’s the risk God continually takes in creation. It’s the risk of Incarnation; the risk of the cross; the risk of love.
It’s also the risk of being human. Our apostolic poverty is more than a matter of prudence because at stake is the knowing and loving of God who is always poorer than we are. At stake is the presence of our creative God in a needy world. … So, can we follow God’s invitation to not have what it takes? Can we voluntarily drop the wherewithal? Can we stoop down to God’s level? And make something beautiful.
September 23rd, 1998
Are you sitting comfortably? … Then I’ll begin. Once upon a time in a land far, far away there was a large and prosperous country proud of its favour in the sight of God. And that country had a monarch, large and prosperous, proud of her favour in the sight of God—so proud in fact that it seemed to her that her life was charmed and her charm irresistible. Even so, she ruled her land with wisdom and equity, comfortable in her power to lubricate the machinery of state with her wit and eloquence.
It seemed that everyone loved her. Her people expressed their adoration in all the polls. Kings and queens of less fortunate lands hurried to her gates for the grace of her presence and returned home grateful, assured with sound bites for their hungry subjects. It seemed that even God favoured her since so many things worked out her way—even in those moments when her private vices became public folly. Which they often did for the Queen’s immoderate charm was always running away with one or another ample palace intern and though they would kiss and kiss sooner or later they all would tell.
But experience had taught her that even scandal could deepen her ratings if she played the prodigal, bringing her tearful repentance charmingly before her people who always saw in her the image of their own hidden failings and so adored her ever the more.
But, charmed though it was, like all lives the Queen’s eventually came to an end. Yes, once upon a time the Queen died and while her body lay in state surrounded by her grieving people her soul winged its way to heaven.
She rather liked the sensation of whooshing up into the sky and, though she never really doubted her destination, as she went she practised her charm for St. Peter. And indeed the Pearly Gates grew near and enormous and glorious till even she, accustomed to magnificence, was subdued and fell into almost humble silence. … There she stood, dwarfed by pillars of cloud, and waited to be waited upon. She made sure she looked her best. She rehearsed her acceptance speech. She waited. And she waited. And she waited. But no St. Peter.
Eventually she tired of waiting and squeezed through a gap in the clouds and began to wander around the empty streets of heaven looking for signs of life. She wandered for an un-timed time until she caught the merest hint of sound: music, perhaps? Yes. And laughter! A party in that hall up ahead. A surprise party for her, no doubt!
She hurried up to the great gilded door and, not wanting to appear in any way overawed, she quietly pushed the door open and looked in. Quite a party was under way and, though at first she recognised no one, one by one certain faces became clear to her in one shock after another. Oh no, that horrible prosecutor man who kept trying to make people hate her. And over there drinking with him, my God, Adolf Hitler. And more faces she remembered with horror. Jeffrey Dahmer and Genghis Khan and Charles Manson and Margaret Thatcher. She was ready to bolt—clearly she was in the wrong place—when Adolf spotted her and ran up to greet her bring her in. “Welcome to heaven!” he said. The Queen’s charm failed her: “How can it be heaven with you here?!” she cried, terrified. But Hitler just smiled and answered, “Yes, it does give people quite a nasty turn when they see me. I was surprised myself when I arrived.”
“But after all you’ve done! This must be hell!”
A sadness crossed his face: “yes, so much I regret but it seems I asked for forgiveness at that last minute and next thing I knew I was here with Jesus waiting for me. And though I was ready to be a janitor and work off my debt of horror, the band was ready to play and the wine already poured and the party begun. Just like now! Won’t you come in?”
“But where are all the good people? Where are they?”
More sadness in his face: “Ah, the good ones. This place is theirs you know. Always has been. Always will be. But not many of them come much further than where you are now. It’s the company I’m afraid. Won’t you come in and join us—dinner’s ready? And look there’s Jesus over there, with Kenneth, waving to you. Please …!”
“Let me think about it,” she said. And she went off in haste to that shadowy place where millions think about it in horror and sadness for eternity.
September 13th, 1998