Woe to you who are rich; Woe to me

Woe to you who are rich; Woe to me March 7, 2019

I have been spending a lot of time thinking about the mass readings from two weeks ago, February 17 (the sixth Sunday in ordinary time).  I actually got the idea for this post at mass.  This happens a lot–I get an idea, I chew on it for a few hours, but it doesn’t get written down and fades away.  This one, however, has stuck with me.   Part of it is that the Gospel of St. Luke has always been my favorite among the four gospels.  I have always found it to be the most Franciscan of the gospels, so much so that during one stint as minister of my Franciscan fraternity I used to recommend a close reading of it to candidates preparing for profession.  I am not going to argue that Franciscan spirituality is specifically grounded in this gospel, but it does resonate in a particular way with my vocation “to observe the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ by following the example of St. Francis of Assisi who made Christ the inspiration and the center of his life with God and people.” (OFS Rule, 4a)

In the reading in question, St. Luke records the “Sermon on the Plain”, which is his parallel to the more famous “Sermon on the Mount” in St. Matthew.  In particular, this reading gives four blessings which parallel the longer beatitudes in Matthew.  What is different is that Luke goes on to list four imprecations:

But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are filled now,
for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will grieve and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you,
for their ancestors treated the false
prophets in this way.” (Lk 6:24-26)

Unlike Matthew, who spiritualizes the associated beatitude in his text (“blessed are the poor in spirit”) Luke has Jesus makes it concrete:  “blessed are you who are poor”, and to drive this point home, “woe to you who are rich.”  There really does not seem to be any escape here, unless you either read it in light of Matthew or if you can convince yourself you are not rich, and so not implicated.  Such a via media exists, at least in theory: many years ago a fellow Franciscan found for me this passage in the book of Proverbs:

Two things I ask of you,
    do not deny them to me before I die:
Put falsehood and lying far from me,
    give me neither poverty nor riches;
    provide me only with the food I need;
Lest, being full, I deny you,
    saying, “Who is the Lord?”
Or, being in want, I steal,
    and profane the name of my God. (Proverbs, 30:7-9)

Nevertheless, this time around I have concentrated on the word rich, and have really been asking if this imprecation is specifically addressed to me.  This arises from personal circumstance:  four years ago I took a new position as Chair of the math department at the University of Alabama (Roll Tide!); one of the economic benefits  was a substantial raise.  This when combined with moving to an area with a much lower cost of living, changed our material circumstances considerably.  What had been carefully rationed luxuries (e.g., going to a movie), now are routine; what had required careful planning and saviing (e.g. European travel) now merely require a bit of budgeting.  So am I rich now?  It does feel that way.

But I have also tried to quantify this, if only because “rich”, in secular discourse (and as a consequence, in our discussions in the Church or in the Franciscan family) is a particularly taboo word.  More precisely the rich exist as some small “other”, to be vilified or admired but never a group one admits to belonging to.   This tendency is well-illustrated, I think, in the slogan of the Occupy Wall Street movement, whose members identified  as the “99%” in opposition to the “1%”.

Rather, people prefer to identify themselves as being  “middle class”, a term which has almost ceased to have meaning except as some special group that politicians want to protect.   More rarely I will hear someone identify as “working class”, though usually only in historical terms:  “my parents were working class”, or “I grew up working class.”  (Part of this is almost certainly selection bias–I tend to have these sorts of conversations with academics or similarly situation folks.)   But the term middle class is sprawling, both in economic and social terms: an elementary school teacher in Alabama and a professional couple in the suburbs of New York or Boston both claim to be middle class.

A more refined analysis of the socio-economic class structure in the US is possible–this has been done, for instance, by people working in the field of Labor Studies.  But instead of trying to unpack this, however, I want to go back to the thrust of Luke’s gospel: the rich.  Am I rich now?  The answer is, I think, yes.   Median household income in 2017 was just under $62,000.  Mine places me within the top 10%.   I am not in the stratospheric reaches of the 0.1% (where millionaires and billionaire reside) but I am so far above the median that calling myself “middle class” seems a stretch, without a great of of further analysis of social structures, and even then a fair analysis shows that I occupy a privileged class.  (See for instance, this discussion of the 9.9%.)

Now economic status is a relative thing:  who should I compare myself to?  An extreme example comes from a student I had who, with only a touch of irony, said that he lived in the “poor” part of his town, where houses cost “only” $1 million.  In the “rich” part of town, houses started at $10 million.   However, in my case if I zoom in or zoom out geographically, my position only improves.  Alabama is a poor state–the acerbic state motto when it comes to rankings is “Thank God for Mississippi!”.  The median household income in Alabama is approximately $48,000, and my income places me comfortably in the top 5%, and perhaps the top 3%.  (This data set appears to be somewhat older than the set quoted above, but the differences are not significant for my purposes.)

And if I look on a world scale, I am, without question, extremely rich.  The data here are straightforward.  My income places me in the top 0.05% of all people world-wide.  (This is based on 2008 World Bank data, and it is not clear if this data is per capita or household income.  Again, any uncertainty this causes in the data is insignificant given the scale we are talking about.)  This site also lets me do an analysis based on accumulated wealth (net assets such as my house, car, personal possessions and savings, less any debt), and again I am extremely rich.   In the distinction drawn by Chris Rock, I am not be wealthy, but I am rich:


So what does this mean for me, personally?  I am not completely sure.  But the rule of the OFS commands that I should make a “careful reading of the gospel, going from gospel to life and life to gospel” (OFS Rule 4b).  And a careful reading, if anything, means being honest with myself about whether it applies to me.  And if I am rich, then I need to acknowledge that truth, no matter how uncomfortable.  In some small way this is like the tenet of Alcoholics Anonymous, which insists that the first step in recovery is admitting that you are an addict.  I cannot go from from gospel to life until I accept that this passage is addressed specifically to me, and not to some vague other.  This does not prevent me from calling out the faults of the 0.1%, whose actions can have a disproportionate impact on the lives of millions.  But it also says that I must look within as well as out.

Doing so is terrifying.  Jesus made it clear:  “I say to you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Mt 19.24, Mk 10:25, Lk 18:25).  And it is precisely the Gospel of Luke which records the story of the rich young man (Lk 18:18-23) who failed the test pressed upon him by Jesus.   But the same Gospel gives me hope, in the story of Zaccheus (Luke 19:1-10).   When I look within, I do not only find who I am now, I also hear the Lord calling me to be who I truly am supposed to be.  I need to listen, and respond, as Zaccheus did.  I suspect my response will not be as dramatic as his, or as St. Francis who embraced Lady Poverty by stripping naked in the town square.  But our God is a God of small steps and second chances:  almost all of us are saved by little and by little, to paraphrase Dorothy Day.

To all of you, but especially my brothers and sisters in St. Francis, I wish you all the best of Lenten seasons.  May you find the courage to truly listen to the word of God and see how it really applies to you.  May you find the courage to see your riches in this world and trade them for the riches of the world to come.

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