Rich and Poor, From St. Luke to Warren Buffett

10/18/2011 08:46 am ET | Updated Dec 18, 2011

In the Catholic Church's calendar, All Saints Day, Nov. 1, is coming soon, a day when we remember all the holy ones, those officially recognized or canonized and those not. They are models of Christian discipleship, exemplars of virtue and of justice and of charity, they are those we believe are now able to see God face to face and to intercede for us. Many of the saints gave their lives for the poor, the hungry, the oppressed, the marginalized, the sick. The saints did not wall themselves up in the smug, solitary and self-congratulatory comfort of gated communities, but rather they broke down barriers that excluded the poor, and reached out to them, stood with them and raised up their dignity. They did not blame the poor for their poverty nor did they flatter the wealthy with thoughts of how much they deserved their luxuries.

On Oct. 18 we celebrate a saint particularly articulate in defense of the poor: the evangelist St. Luke. It his account of Christmas that we celebrate each year, his focus on the poverty of Jesus born in a stable. From his birth onwards, St. Luke's Jesus did not spurn identification with the poor, but rather was frequently among them, defending them, supporting them.

In Luke's story of the Good Samaritan (10:30-37), Jesus makes clear that his disciples must not spurn the poor and the injured, they must not pass by those requiring healing and assistance. They must care for them generously, without worrying about re-payment. Moreover, in this story the one who is a model disciple is a foreigner, a Samaritan. If we live in a time and place when many blame the poor for their plight, we also see the same heartless and dishonest people using foreigners as scapegoats for every social problem. St. Luke's Jesus will have absolutely none of this. The foreigner puts the natives -- the respectable people -- to shame with his exemplary generosity and selflessness.

In Luke's narrative of Lazarus and the Rich Man (16:19-31), Jesus makes clear that the wealthy in this world who enjoy their plenty while ignoring the needs of others for food and medical attention will suffer the pains of eternal punishment. The greedy rich will burn in hell. After death, their possible repentance will be too late. Their hardness of heart and their longstanding deafness to the prophets calling them to conversion will earn them everlasting torment. But the poor ones, the ones that had but scraps from the rich, if that, and the suffering ones that had no access to health care, they will enjoy salvation.

What we usually call the story of the Rich Young Man appears in various versions in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. In Luke (18:18-30) this man is indeed wealthy, and rather than joyfully give up his wealth in order to follow Jesus along the path to eternal life, he is saddened to think of such a stark choice between his riches and salvation. Perhaps he thought, naively, that he could be rich and a disciple of Jesus, that discipleship would not be too demanding after all. But he finds out differently. Another narrative found in Matthew, Mark and Luke concerns a question about payment of taxes. Jesus resolutely rejects arguments used to avoid taxes and insists that they be paid to the state (Luke 20:22-26). Today's anti-tax movements may not find much support in Jesus of Nazareth.

Scripture scholars agree that the author of the Gospel of Luke also wrote the Acts of the Apostles. In the latter, chapters four and five are particularly interesting for questions of wealth and economic stewardship. We read that Christian believers held everything in common; no one among them was in need. But a certain couple, Ananias and Sapphira, concealed some of their property and did not place it at the disposal of the community. When questioned about this by St. Peter, they fell dead. Their greed and their dishonesty destroyed them.

These passages from the Acts of the Apostles had enormous influence through centuries of medieval Christianity, when monasteries made the holding of goods in common a central feature of religious communities. In the same era, Christian theologians and preachers insisted that the poor were images of Christ, and that those who treated the poor with contempt, that those who ignored the needs of the poor, would be ignored by Christ on Judgment Day.

In more recent times some Christians have been advocates for the poor and have worked tirelessly for them; but others, while claiming to be Christians, have mocked the poor and blamed them for their own suffering. In the Catholic Church, papal teaching has been very clear in these matters, especially since Pope Leo XIII and Rerum novarum, his encyclical of 1891 on workers and their dignity. Subsequent popes have reinforced and developed this teaching: The state has a duty to intervene in the economy for the sake of workers. The state has a duty to defend the human dignity of each person, to guarantee a living wage to all workers, and to protect individuals from the rapaciousness and selfishness of the rich. The state must not allow workers and the poor to be but a means to ever greater enrichment of a few persons. Call it the social gospel, Christian social teaching or some kind of social "ism," but this is what the Catholic Church teaches, and it is not some optional or marginal part of the Church's doctrine.

And though Warren Buffett may not be a saint -- at least not yet -- in calling for the wealthy to pay more in income taxes, he shows them a way to a responsibility, to an accountability and, indeed, to a salvation that may otherwise elude them.