Faith Matters

Edward O'Donnell: There is poverty in wealth without compassion

The exercise of compassion lies at the heart of Jesus' teaching on wealth, says Fr Edward O'Donnell

Maria Mercedes Gomez is from the Rio Blanco community in Honduras, who are resisting the construction of a hydro-electric dam. Trócaire is backing their campaign, which is an example of how wealth inequalities can lead to oppression of the poor. Picture by Garry Walsh/Trócaire
Fr Edward O'Donnell

RECENTLY I came across this quote from the late American writer, philosopher and artist Elbert Hubbard: "Who loses wealth loses much; who loses friends loses more; but who loses the soul loses all."

On the same theme, the prophet Jeremiah, less poetically, bluntly states: "A curse on the man who puts his trust in man... a blessing on the man who puts his trust in the Lord."

Both Hubbard's quote and Jeremiah's comment echo also in St Luke's account of the Beatitudes in which Jesus gives to his followers four promises and four warnings.

All three teach an important lesson which is well illustrated in the life story of an American called Lee Atwater.

In the 1980s Atwater was an American political consultant and strategist for the Republican party and adviser to presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush Senior.

He aroused great controversy by his aggressive, unjust and often cruel campaign tactics. His was a philosophy of winning at all costs.

In March 1990, Atwater suddenly fell ill - he had a brain tumour.

As his illness progressed, Atwater converted to Catholicism.

In an act of repentance he wrote to those whom he had so viciously reviled during his public life.

"My illness has taught me something about the nature of humanity, love, brotherhood, and relationships that I never understood, and probably never would have," he wrote to one.

"So, from that standpoint, there is some truth and good in everything."

In an article, written just before his death, Atwater spoke of how he had come to recognise the spiritual vacuum in his life.

"The 1980s were about acquiring - acquiring wealth, power, prestige," he wrote.

"I know. I acquired more wealth, power, and prestige than most.

"But you can acquire all you want and still feel empty.

"What power wouldn't I trade for a little more time with my family? What price wouldn't I pay for an evening with friends?

"It took a deadly illness to put me eye-to-eye with that truth."

Atwater died a year after the onset of his illness, aged 40.

The four promises and four warnings Jesus gave to his followers form the introduction to a sermon in which he outlined for his followers to the implications of the law of love by which they were to live, and the high ethical standards that flow from that law.

Jesus saw all around him people defenceless against the powerful, broken by unjust taxes, their human dignity ignored.

Hence his warnings to the rich and the powerful who acquired their wealth and security by exploitation of the weak and the vulnerable, and used it exclusively for their own lavish lifestyles.

In their arrogance they believed that they were answerable to no-one but themselves.

St Paul rightly said: "The love of money is the root of all evils and there are some who, pursuing it, have wandered away from the faith, and so given their souls any number of wounds" (1 Timothy 6:10).

Note, Paul says it is "the love of money" not money itself. Avarice destroys respect for the rights of others.

Pope Benedict XVI once commented, "closing our eyes to our neighbour also blinds us to God".

Jesus seeks conversion and gives as a model his Father. "Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate" (Luke 6:36-38), while reminding everyone: "And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? (Matthew 16:26).

When Jesus speaks of the poor, the hungry, those who weep, and the oppressed, and blesses them, he is not suggesting that there is anything virtuous about being in any of these situations.

In blessing them, Jesus never said they were good or virtuous, only that they suffered unjustly.

He took their side not because they deserved it but because they needed it.

Without judging them in anyway whatsoever, Jesus offers them hope and the chance to recover their dignity.

The powerful and influential who confronted Jesus could not see that it was those they regarded as the dregs of society who were closest to Jesus' heart - just as they rejected them so they would reject him.

Jesus would have us see that the poor and the oppressed challenge us to open our eyes and see the misery all around us and to respond, not with the indifference of the self-satisfied, but with an open heart.

In doing so we become true followers: "I tell you solemnly, in so far as you did this to one of the least, you did it to me" (Matthew 25:46).

:: Fr Edward O'Donnell is parish priest of St Brigid's in Belfast.

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