Sunday Homily: Pope Francis on Wealth Redistribution

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Readings for 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 8: 23-9:3; PS 27: 1, 4, 13-14; I COR 1: 10-13, 17; MT 4: 12=23 http://usccb.org/bible/readings/012614.cfm

According to an Oxfam report released last Monday (Jan. 20th), the 85 richest people in the world now have as much wealth as the world’s 3.6 billion poorest people – i.e. as much as half the planet’s entire population. Eighty-five people!

The report’s publication makes clear the importance of Pope Francis’ recent Apostolic Exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium” (E.G.). That’s because the pope’s “Joy of the Gospel” specifically addresses the injustices of income inequalities.

The Oxfam report also reveals as fatuous a recently advanced defense of vast wealth differentials in the very terms the pope criticizes. (I’m referring to David Brooks’ New York Times column – see below.) Oxfam’s report also makes relevant the readings in today’s liturgy of the word. They address inequality by reflecting the mentality of the poor and Jesus’ commitment to the working class in first century Palestine’s social context of obscene differences in wealth between rich and poor.

Before looking at those readings, I wonder what you think of that Oxfam statistic. Once again, the richest 85 people in the world have as much wealth as the poorest 3.6 billion – the poorest half of our planet’s population.

Personally, I find that shocking and almost unfathomable. Yet the New York Times’ David Brooks says inequality is not the problem. As a powerful apologist for the rich, Brooks alleges that only those locked into a “primitive zero-sum mentality” would believe that the poor are poor because the rich have too much of the earth’s resources.

The economic pie is continually expanding, Brooks implies. So even though good jobs have been off-shored, and Wall Street bonuses are indefensible, the problem of inequality cannot be solved by wealth redistribution schemes or raises in the minimum wage. Instead, the real solution is to educate the poor – furnishing them with the cultural attitudes and job skills necessary to lift them from poverty caused by single parent families, school drop-outs, and the resulting generations-long culture of poverty.

Brooks’ argument is hackneyed. And in its familiarity, it illustrates the fallacies about poverty commonly subscribed to by the rich. Those approaches nearly always embrace a version of trickle-down theory. They find poverty’s solution in reforming the poor and educating them for the hi-tech jobs that will emancipate them from poverty. Mainstream intellectuals reject measures like minimum wage increases and higher taxes on the rich as “populist” and as introducing class-conflict themes that are dangerous and counterproductive.

It is such dodges by the rich that were specifically rejected by Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium. There the pope says unmistakably that extreme wealth on the one hand and abysmal poverty on the other are interconnected. In fact, he accuses the powerful of actually “feeding upon” the powerless (E.G. #53). They’re eating them up! Francis also rejects out of hand the trickle-down mentality behind Brooks’ observations. The pope classifies Brooks’ reference to a “primitive zero-sum mentality” as itself being “crude and naïve.”

In fact, what the pope actually says about trickle-down theories can’t be repeated too often. He writes: “In this context some people continue to defend trickle-down theories . . . This opinion which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power . . . Meanwhile the excluded are still waiting.”

Pope Francis also scraps apologetics like those Brooks employs when he essentially blames the poor for their poverty and would save them by “education.” Here Francis’ specific words are: ”Some simply content themselves with blaming the poor and the poorer countries themselves for their troubles; indulging in unwarranted generalizations, they claim that the solution is an “education” that would tranquilize them, making them tame and harmless.”

Pope Francis’ words bring a startling reminder to would-be Christians that economic questions – considerations of social justice and equality – are central to Christian faith. Francis’ words sensitize us to a reality that presents itself to believers every Sunday if we’re attentive enough to perceive the socio-economic dimensions in each week’s readings.

Today’s readings once again offer a case in point. The first selection comes from the prophet Isaiah. It recalls a time when Israel had been released from painful exile and enslavement by ancient Babylon (modern day Iraq). According to Isaiah, exile was a time of anguish, darkness, gloom and distress – the pain inevitably experienced by the exploited then and now. Liberation from slavery’s “rod and yoke” changed all of that. Darkness and gloom were replaced by light, joy and rejoicing.

Significantly for the topic at hand (inequality and its remedies) the prophet uses two poor people’s images to describe the change. The joy of the liberated was like that of peasants reaping the fields at harvest time. Now, however, the harvested crop would belong to them, not to idle landlords. In this new situation reaping the fields presaged a time when hunger would be replaced by feasting.

Even more to the point, according to Isaiah, the joy of those liberated from Babylon was like the ecstasy of rebels dividing spoils after The Revolution – when the wealth of their oppressors was finally redistributed to those who had worked so long producing that wealth in exchange for nothing but “rod and yoke.”

In other words, the reading from Isaiah refers to a time of plenty and of wealth redistribution – always the dream of the poor and dispossessed – a dream, Pope Francis reminds us, that is also the Dream of God.

It was a dream shared by Jesus. He called his revolutionary vision the “Kingdom of God.” In today’s reading from Matthew, we see the working man from Nazareth recruiting those who would help organize the poor around that concept. Matthew presents Jesus as selecting comrades like himself – from the working class. His initial selections are the poor illiterate fishermen Simon, Andrew, James and John. They would accompany him and learn from him as he confronted his culture’s rich elite – the temple priests, rich landlords (again the temple priests), and collaborators with Roman occupation forces.

Reza Aslan tells us that Jesus did all of this in a context of extreme economic inequality. Aslan writes of “the chasm between the starving and indebted poor toiling in the countryside and the wealthy provincial class ruling in Jerusalem . . . .” He describes a Jesus who as a tekton (a Greek word meaning Jack of all trades) worked daily rebuilding the opulent city of Sepphoris, the capital of Galilee, an hour’s walk from his village of Nazareth. “Six days a week,” Aslan writes, “from sunup to sundown, Jesus would have toiled in the royal city, building palatial houses for the Jewish aristocracy during the day, returning to his crumbling mud-brick home at night. He would have witnessed for himself the rapidly expanding divide between the absurdly rich and the indebted poor.”

No doubt that experience sensitized Jesus to the plight of those who shared his social location. Like others he knew, Jesus was convinced that the situation was unsustainable. As Aslan puts it, “There was a feeling particularly among the peasants and pious poor, that the present order was coming to an end, that a new and divinely inspired order was about to reveal itself. The Kingdom of God was at hand. Everyone was talking about it.”

Jesus made it the point of his work as a community organizer par excellence to focus on the advent of God’s kingdom. In today’s Gospel, Matthew says, “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”

And in proclaiming and working for the kingdom, Jesus did not shy away from statements that might be seen as engendering class conflict. “Blessed are you poor,” he said, “for yours is the Kingdom of God” (LK 6:20). “Woe to you rich, you have had your reward” (LK 6:24). “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God” (MT 19: 16-24). All of these statements show consciousness of class struggle.

So what are we to do about income inequalities? In 1998, a UN Development Report called for a tax of 4% on the world’s richest 225 people. The report said that such a tax (6% less than the traditional tithe) would provide enough resources to feed, clothe, house, cure and educate the entire Third World.

To the wealthy, such taxation is unthinkable. As a result, 30,000 children die of absolutely preventable starvation each day.

In the eyes of Pope Francis – in the eyes of Jesus, I’m sure – tolerating such needless deaths is sinful and runs entirely contrary to any pretensions of those identifying themselves as “pro-life.”

No, Mr. Brooks, we can’t ignore the connections between extreme wealth and abysmal poverty. Wealth must somehow be redistributed. We have the word of Oxfam and the UN on that. We have the word of Pope Francis and of Jesus too.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

3 thoughts on “Sunday Homily: Pope Francis on Wealth Redistribution”

  1. This is so discouraging, Mike. It makes me feel deeply depressed because I feel so helpless. Most of all I feel anger — no, not just anger. I feel a deep uncontrolable rage. It’s like ‘they’ have all the power — I refer to the ‘puppet masters’ who are running the show and have been for much too long, perhaps since the beginning. We are called to love our enemies, to forgive them — even when they evidence near hatred and repulsion and total lack of compassion for the poor and helpless among us? I cannot bring myself to believe that. Even Jesus showed righteous anger when He saw His father’s house reviled and the poor treated with callous indifference. My reasoning and my feelings may sound naive but they come from the sorrow in my heart.

    We used to call ‘hell’ a place of fire and damnation where evildoers would suffer anguish and torment, never to be in God’s presence forever — for eternity. I guess the theology of that has changed over the years. Whatever God’s justice brings to those who treat the helpless as they do will be righteous. Jesus’ words in Scripture tell us that. The way things are escalating in this world today, I think that ‘hell’ is going to be a very crowded place.

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  2. Yes, very discouraging because, short of revolution, we cannot envision any what the balance can be significantly tipped. Tax policy changes, philanthropy by those with great wealth is important and we need to both practice and advocate for small things that will assist the less well off, but how many of us are willing to divest ourselves of significant amounts of our comfortable life-styles (houses, travel, fine restaurants, etc)? We are all sinners.

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    1. I agree, Bill, we are all sinners. However, I didn’t understand the 4% tax on the 225 (now 85!) wealthiest to be philanthropy, but a real tax not dependent on good will. Of course, implementing such a measure would require serious changes in world economic structures like those (faintly) suggested by Pope Francis. The suggestion I was trying to make was that Christians should mobilize for those sort of political changes rather than being distracted by the “obsessions” the pope alluded to.

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