The message for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time is clear. Trust in God and you will prosper like a tree by a bubbling stream. Then, we look around. People who place their trust in mammon or Homeland security seem to be prospering. The wealthy few consume a lion’s share of the world’s resources.
The World Bank reports that in 2005, the wealthiest 20% of the world accounted for 76.6% of total private consumption and the poorest fifth just 1.5%. The poorest 10% accounted for just 0.5% and the wealthiest 10% accounted for 59% of all the consumption.
Time out! What is going on? Has the Bible got it wrong? Blessed are the poor; however, the rich seem to be the ones who are prospering.
It all depends on our standard of judgment. If we judge by the standards of unfettered free market capitalism, then the rich are prospering. They have and they consume. And do they consume! We must also remind ourselves that we may be counted among the rich if we know we will have shelter and food six months from now. Woe to us!
Jesus introduced a new standard of judgment. Jesus spells out the standards of the Kin-dom in the beatitudes. “Blessed are the poor.” How are the poor blessed? They are concerned with being, not having and doing. Life’s vagaries have led them to place their trust in God. As I write this, my mind flashes back to the sign on the colorful tap-tap bus coming across the bridge in Somotillo, Nicaragua, “Jesus es senor in Nicaragua.” Jesus is Lord in Nicaragua. The Nicaraguans are saying, “We judge life by Jesus’ standards. Yes, we are poor. Most of us earn less than two dollars a day, but on the Lord’s Day we put on the best clothes we have and we praise God. They are like trees by a nurturing stream.”
Lent is approaching. Alms, fasting, and prayer represent the traditional ways of building our trust in God. In a consumer society, fasting entails much more than abstaining from food and drink.
Fasting in this context invites us to examine our patterns of consumption. Where do our food, fuel, clothing and electronic toys come from? Take fuel for an example. Every gas pump I have seen lately says, “Contains up to 10% ethanol.” We experience a fuel shortage and higher prices. The solution is simple. Turn corn which could feed the world’s hungry into ethanol so we can have cheaper fuel. (BTW, when I use ethanol-laced gas my mileage drops about 3 miles per gallon—where is the wisdom here?) We are taking food from the mouths of starving people and putting it into our gas tanks. Our love of red meat is turning the lungs of the world—the rain forests—into pasture land in order to meet our inordinate demand for something that is not all that healthy.
Lent calls upon us to examine our economic system and our complicity in it. Free market economists cherish the market. The Market is God. Wall Street is the Market’s Temple. The market will create wealth and lift people out of poverty. Paternalistic capitalism does just the opposite. My evidence is the growing income gap in our nation and around the world. Just think of the unconscionable bonuses. When the public cried out, they smiled, mumbled something about having earned the bonuses, and went to the bank before boarding their yachts for a weekend cruise.
Merton’s last talk in Bangkok, hours before his untimely death, was on “Marxism and Monasticism.” Merton and the popes have pointed out that capitalism and communism are very similar. Both are focused on fulfilling the materialistic needs of people. They focus on production and consumption. They focus on having and doing instead of being. Greed drives both systems and, in both systems, the few get rich at the expense of the many.
Our Lenten fasting can help us put a soul back into economic activity. Fasting during Lent puts us in solidarity with those who hunger and thirst. Fasting, almsgiving, and prayer during Lent anchor us in Gospel values—compassion, mercy, solidarity, and the common good. Our Lenten practice roots us in the stream of Life:
Blessed is the one who trusts in the LORD,
whose hope is the LORD.
He is like a tree planted beside the waters
that stretches out its roots to the stream:
it fears not the heat when it comes;
its leaves stay green;
in the year of drought it shows no distress,
but still bears fruit. (Jer 17)
Prayer, almsgiving, and fasting anchor us in Gospel values. Listen to Jesus:
Blessed are you who are poor,
for the kingdom of God is yours.
Blessed are you who are now hungry,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who are now weeping,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
and when they exclude and insult you,
and denounce your name as evil
on account of the Son of Man.
Rejoice and leap for joy on that day! (Lk 6)
Blessed are they who hope in God!