In September of 2015 not long after his election as Pope, our Holy Father, Pope Francis made his first pastoral visit to the United States. On this occasion he was extended the extraordinary opportunity by the Speaker of the House to address a joint session of Congress. Prior to that address there were not a few political commentators on the right who were a bit nervous as to what the Holy Father might say during his unprecedented speech to Congress. In the months leading up to the visit political commentators were keenly aware of Pope Francis’ negative assessments of what he has referred to as ‘unbridled capitalism.’ Harsh criticisms meted out by Pope Francis on free-market capitalism have sparked backlash from some fiscal conservatives and have led some people to call him "anti-capitalist" or even Marxist.
Joseph Kaboski, a professor of economics at the University of Notre Dame and president of CREDO, an international organization of Catholic economists, said, "As an individual, the pope probably views redistribution programs as a more effective way of tackling poverty than economic growth," though "most mainstream economists would disagree." However, Kaboski said he views the pope "as neither pro- nor anti-capitalist, but instead a measured critic."
A ‘measured critic’ is perhaps a wise assessment of the role of the Holy Father whose perspective is not tied to one nation or system of governance but rather called to have a broad and universal understanding of both the blessings and challenges that exist in our postmodern world.
My friends, isn’t that precisely what Jesus did in so many of the sayings we have recorded for us in the Gospels? Jesus immersed himself in the messiness of the everyday lives of his people. He praised and affirmed the healing gift of compassion and generous and forgiving love. He inveighed against the hypocrisy of the religious elite because ultimately, holiness would be found in our striving toward living lives of moral integrity – wholeness. In matters of faith and society, his ‘measured critique’ of ‘rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God, the things that are God’s’ still resonates with wisdom down through two millennia.
In our Gospel today, Jesus is asked what the formula is for a ‘life worth living that would be open to eternity.’ Jesus, who often was referred to as ‘Rabbi’ or teacher, responds with the wisdom of one steeped in the law of the covenant. You know the commandments:
You shall not kill;
you shall not commit adultery;
you shall not steal;
you shall not bear false witness;
you shall not defraud;
honor your father and your mother.
To which the man replies, “I have observed all of these from my youth.” Then Jesus, looking at him with love, challenged him to go beyond the letter of the law to the heart of living the Good News:
"You are lacking in one thing.
Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor
and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."
At that statement his face fell,
and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.
My friends, all that we have and all that we are come to us by way of gift from the One who is indeed the giver of all good gifts in our lives. We are not the masters but inheritors of whatever material goods that enrich our lives. We are, as has been said, stewards of creation, caring and then passing on those gifts to another generation for safe keeping.
While some among us are literally called to give their possessions away and live in vowed poverty, most of us are called to do something that can, in many respects, be even more difficult. We are called to live with the possessions that surround us and, let’s be honest, many of which bring us joy and delight, and yet, heed the Gospel challenge and resist being possessed by them. In the course of my life I have met some of the most selfish people who materially own virtually nothing and I have met the most generous and self-giving people whose wealth and fame mean little to them.
My friends, as we hear God’s word this day, may it truly be a ‘two-edged’ sword that pierces our heart as a ‘measured critic’ of the way we are living our lives in relationship to the goods and possessions that surround us. Are they helping or hindering our way to heaven?