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.
Add comment September 23rd, 1998