Recently I attended a meeting for ministers of retreat centers; at one session we were asked to surface those issues which afflict contemporary people. I was stirred by the participants’ pastoral insight and sensitivity. Responses included joblessness, violence, forced migration of populations. But one retort really intrigued me: "the demonization of capitalism."
We’ve all heard the political arguments. Some say it takes the genius of a free market economy to conquer poverty, not wealth redistribution schemes. Others highlight the growing disparity between rich and poor. Last week Pope Francis said, "Unbridled capitalism has taught the logic of profit at any cost, of giving in order to receive, of exploitation without looking at the person…,", before adding that the results of such attitudes can be seen "in the crisis we are now living through." Later he added, "Modern men and women need to recover their understanding of what a gift is, what it means to offer something without expecting anything in return and what it means to be in solidarity with the suffering."
Today’s Gospel is another of the "hard sayings" of Jesus. But have you ever heard something like this? The preacher of the "prosperity Gospel" lessens the impact of Jesus’ powerful metaphor by saying that the "eye of the needle" was a small gate in first century Palestine, used after nightfall, when the main gates of the village were closed. Only by removing the load from the animal’s back, and with lots of pulling and pushing, could the camel get through. Jesus was simply exaggerating, they say, when teaching about the near impossibility of the rich person entering the Kingdom of God.
Could it be that both positions are correct? Could it be that an "attitude adjustment" is necessary in many of our lives? Not the Conference of American Bishops, not the Nuns on the Bus. You and I. In other words, Jesus said if you have two coats give one to the poor. Jesus does not say to be poor, he says to give your surplus to the poor, to not keep two coats. Jesus’ response to the young man in today’s narrative is radical, it’s subversive. And no matter how we interpret the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, he tells us it’s okay to be wealthy; it’s not okay to be selfish.
Fr. Jack Conley, C.P. is the director of the Office of Mission Effectiveness. He is a member of the Passionist formation community at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.