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Charles J. Reid, Jr. Headshot

Poverty, Sex, and the Gospels

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During Jesus' earthly ministry, what troubled him most about what he saw? To listen to the religious right, you'd think it was loose sexual mores.

But would this really be Jesus' emphasis? For sure, no one can plausibly imagine the Jesus of the Gospels recommending casual sexual liaisons. That's not Jesus. But what really moved Jesus to speak against the injustice of his age was poverty. According to the Gospel of Luke, the first words out of his mouth, when he stood to deliver his Sermon on the Mount, were: "Blessed are you poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God." (Luke 6: 20). And in the next verse he added: "Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied." (Luke 6: 21). And then he condemned the rich and the well-fed: "But woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you that are full now, for you shall hunger." (Luke 6: 24-25).

This refrain is repeated throughout the Gospels. Jesus stresses that we must not give heed to material possessions. "A man's life," Jesus taught, "does not consist in the abundance of his possessions." (Luke 12: 15). We should not store up earthly treasure, "for where your treasure, there will be your heart also." (Matthew 6: 21). Money oppresses. It crushes the spirit. We must not be in thrall to it, but rather "consider the lillies of the filed, how they grow. They neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these." (Matthew 7: 28-29).

We do not own wealth, Jesus reminds us. Rather, wealth owns us. "No one can serve two masters," he declared. "For either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Mammon." (Matthew 6: 24). We should rather place all of our trust in God. When Jesus sent his disciples on mission, he instructed them not to carry money (Matthew 10: 7-10), although quite practically he advised them that they should earn their keep ("the laborer deserves his wages," Luke 10: 7).

Jesus doubted that those attached to wealth could ever be saved. When the rich young man approached him and assured him that he knew the mandates of the Law and kept them, Jesus told him that there was yet one thing he should do: "One thing still you lack. Sell all that you have and distribute it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me." (Luke 18: 22). Did Jesus mean this literally, in every case? Probably not, because in the very next chapter the Gospel writer recites the story of Zacchaeus, a tax collector but a righteous man who gave half of his belongings to the poor. (Luke 19: 8). What Jesus found pleasing in Zacchaeus was his priorities -- first he generously met the needs of others, and only then looked after his own.

Yet this other-centeredness was very difficult for a rich person to accomplish. "Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, 'How hard it will be for those who have riches to enter the Kingdom of God.'" (Mark 10: 23). "It is easier,," Jesus emphasized, "for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God." (Matthew 19: 24). Most people, Jesus well understood, were not like Zacchaeus.

In contrast to this elaborate and repeated teaching, we find nothing comparable when we look at what Jesus said about sexual transgressions. The Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, those texts which were intended to summarize the core principles of Jesus' earthly ministry, contain no mention of sexual sins.

To be sure, in other texts, Jesus does condemn fornication and adultery (Mark 7: 21) as sins arising from an unclean heart. He understood adultery as prohibited by divine command (Matthew 19: 18). His strongest statements on adultery, however, are found in his teaching on marriage and divorce. In Matthew, Jesus states: "whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery." (Matthew 19: 9). And in Mark, Jesus informs his audience that those who divorce their spouses in order to marry another commit adultery (Mark 10: 11-12).

In these passages, it is the betrayal, the abandonment of one spouse by the other, that is denounced. Interestingly, a close reading of the passages suggests that Jesus did not prohibit the innocent party from remarriage, only the one who sought an easy escape from marriage for the arms of another partner. The prophet Malachi comes to mind: "Let none be faithless to the wife of his youth." (Malachi 2: 15).

Where Jesus does address sexual offenses, repeatedly and strongly, is the passages on forgiveness. Nowhere is Jesus quicker to show mercy than when confronted with a sexual sinner. In Luke 7: 37-41, a woman who has committed many sexual sins washed and anointed Jesus' feet. Turning to the hypocrites seated next to him, Jesus praised her repentance, her hospitality, her quiet sincerity, and forgave her sins. In John 8: 1-11, Jesus faced down a mob looking to stone a woman caught in adultery. He silently knelt down and wrote in the sand, and one-by-one, the unruly mob of moralizers slunk away. And then there is one of the most astonishing stories in the whole of the Gospels, Jesus at Jacob's well. It was there that he spoke with a Samaritan woman who had been married five times but was now living with a man not her husband. Yet it was to her that he promised the gift of living water. (John 4: 7-30).

Much of the Catholic right wing, at least here in America, has lost sight of the core of the Gospel message. Consider the recent book by George Weigel, Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st Century Church (2013). In a book that purports to recommend a viable future path for the Catholic Church, just look at what is missing from the index: There is no entry for "poor." No entry for "forgiveness." There is no entry for "money" or "economy." There isn't even an entry for "love." Poverty is mentioned, but only in the context of the vows taken by monks and nuns.

What, then, is Weigel's prescription for reform? The ever tighter policing of doctrine and dogma. One particularly outrageous example occurs at pp. 184-186, where Weigel scolds the Vatican for going soft on Catholic nuns! When it came time to really crack down, the Vatican "surrendered," and "went into full retreat." What was really needed, Weigel thundered, was more "orthodoxy and orthopraxis." Yep, that'll win 'em over, an even harsher crack-down on nuns! This book cannot be taken seriously and for the good of the Church one hopes it never will be.

Pope Francis, on the other hand, so far at least seems to be getting the priorities right. The Church is meant to be poor. It must live and breathe with the poor, just as Jesus did. It must take risks in the name of social justice, even if it stirs up "right-wing funk" (Charles J. Reid, Jr., "Right-wing Funk," ReligiousLeftLaw.com, July 23, 2013).

This is the spirit of real reform in the Catholic Church. It is the imitation of Christ. And it seems that Pope Francis's willingness to take account of human needs first, his evident desire to walk humbly with God, his desire to preach through action that are the secrets of the surprisingly extended honeymoon he has so far enjoyed.