The Word Engaged
Problems with Personal Money
“You cannot give yourself to God and money.”
Possessions. Investments. Financial security. I find the whole issue painful to face in the Gospels. This strikes some of my friends as ludicrous, since I do not appear to involve myself much with money, living as I do, under the vow of poverty. In fact, we Jesuits take an extra vow concerning poverty that promises, in effect, never to change the vow of poverty except to make it more strict.
Yet our use of money has always haunted us Jesuits, whether in our general or provincial congregations, our rules, our traditions, or our community squabbles. For the most part we live a modest, even simple life. But by the standards of living in most quarters of the earth, we live in uncommon security and abundance. In comparison even with the ordinary parish priest or middle-class family, dogged by bills, taxes, and debt, I live a comfy existence.
As the story goes, a young graduate of a Jesuit university, happening upon one of our community recreation areas with its filled refrigerators, fine furniture, and inviting television rooms, quips, “If this is poverty, show me chastity.”
Money is for persons and the only proper use of it is in sharing.
Some members of the Society of Jesus, whether young or old, hidden or famous, do far better than the rest of us in living frugal lives. They can be found in college administrations as well as in the hills of Honduras. But even they have security about education, health care, and lodging that most people in the world can only imagine.
And so for Jesuits, as for many Christians who wish to follow Christ and yet find themselves rich in material things, Gospel teachings concerning money are troubling. At times it becomes so perplexing that we are tempted to stop searching for a solution. This has been true in my own case. It seems so hard, even impossible, to integrate my material security with full discipleship that I often give up trying to figure it out. Maybe it will all go away.
Jesus, in the Gospel according to Luke, tells us that we should not give up the effort. This is the recommendation (not advice to deceive and manipulate) behind the story of the unjust steward. The steward musters every available bit of farsightedness and craft when it comes to working out his material fate. And he is dealing with mere earthly things. We, however, are trying to figure out something that touches the very meaning of who we are and what we forever cling to.
Luke himself provides two guidelines to help us figure out our relationship to money. The whole of chapter 16, with its four interrelated sections, exemplifies the first guideline: Money is for persons and the only proper use of it is in sharing. What is more, those who make special claim on our sharing are the poor. This is an inescapable conclusion from Luke’s teaching. It is a teaching with ancient pedigree, the same doctrine that led Amos to indict those who “trample upon the needy and destroy the poor of the land.” And just as Amos said that God would never forget the exploiting of workers for silver, dress, and drink, so also Luke warned of a dire fate for the rich man in the story of Lazarus.
Luke’s second guideline is the pithy moral drawn from the story of the steward: “No servant can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other or be attentive to the one and despise the other. You cannot give yourself to God and money.” The more we allow ourselves to be mastered by money, the more we are likely to despise those who remind us of another dominion. We might even resent the very Gospels that challenge our attachment.
Our attitudes to the poor and our attitudes about security are the best indications of our discipleship. For myself, neither guideline has been very reassuring. Even this summer I was taken aback by the feelings of contempt I have for beggars. While waiting to meet my brother and his wife at a corner in Oxford, I was aloof and abrupt whenever I spotted a hand held out by someone who looked lazy, dirty, or irresponsible, or appeared to be in a drug haze.
When Tom and Maureen came along and quietly gave a few coins to the very people who rankled me, I saw a shadowy glimpse of the truth I had repressed. They were not solving poverty in the world; they were not even solving the immediate problem of one person along the sidewalk. They were just reaching out to another human, surely broken and less blessed, and sharing something of what they had.
My brother and his wife, perhaps unwittingly, were reminding me of something far more significant than the transitory shame I felt for my smallness. It was once again the call of the Gospels, nudging me not to give up on the poor or the ways, however small and passing, I might give to them.
John Kavanaugh, SJ
**From Saint Louis University