Monday, December 28, 2009

Wealth and Poverty

“I am poor and needy, O Lord, come to my aid,” says the Prophet and King David.

There is a kind of wealth that makes you arrogant and independent even if you do not have a cent. And there is a poverty that takes no notice of visible signs of wealth, for it sees them as only transient: tools to be used, responsibilities to be managed, tokens of the greater judgment that will fall on those who have received more. King David continually refers to himself as the poor and needy one. His visible wealth and power did not often blur his inner vision. David never forgot that he was the youngest son, who was not even counted worthy to be called in from the sheep-field when the famous Prophet Samuel paid the family a visit: David, the son who did the work of a hired servant, who was ready to confront the lion and the bear to protect his father’s sheep—considering his own life to be of little value when compared to his father’s flock. David, who would not stretch out his had to strike the Lord’s Anointed, even thought the insane King Saul was hunting him like an animal. David, who would not drink the water from the well of Bethlehem gotten for him at the risk of his men’s lives, but he poured it out to the Lord. This David remembered who he was and who God is, for he knew his poverty and only twice did he forget it.

The first time David forgets his poverty (2 Kingdoms [Samuel] 11) is after he had been established as king of Judah and Israel, after a particularly stunning victory over the then world power of Syria. The following spring, “at the time when kings go out to battle,” King David sent out Joab and his guards and all Israel to finish up the military campaign that was interrupted last year when the Syrians became involved. David stayed home. Perhaps he felt he was too important to go out to battle, now that the great army of the Syrians had been defeated. Maybe he felt that he deserved a rest. Maybe he just had other things to do—whatever his reason, at the time when kings go out to battle, King David stayed home. And staying home, David was bored, and being bored he gazed at a woman bathing, and then David, who once was willing to give his life to save his father’s flock, steals the one beloved lamb of Uriah, a low ranking commander in his army. To hide his sin, David uses his power, the power that God had given him to do good, David uses that same power to kill a faithful servant, a man better than he, a loyal man who willingly dies in the service of the Lord’s anointed.

The second time David forgets his poverty is when “Satan stood up against Israel, and moved David to number Israel” (1 Chronicles 21). For David to count his men, like a rich man counting his gold coins, was a sin because there was no need: it had no purpose except to allow David to revel in his power. David forgot, for a moment, that the kingdom is the Lord’s, that military might came from God’s favor, not the strength of his arm—as David himself had said in his Psalms. Even Joab, a man not known for virtue or spiritual insight, warns David that this would be a sin, yet David’s authority as king prevailed—authority given to him for good not for evil, not so that he could revel in self-satisfied contentment.

David, who usually sees himself as the poor and needy one, for a moment takes his eyes off his heart, where the shepherd boy still sang hymns to the God of the earth and the sky. The shepherd boy who now shepherds God’s rational sheep lifted his eyes from his heart and began to pay too much attention to the trappings around him. He forgot who he was and who God is and fell into sins that, because of his position, brought suffering and death to the very rational sheep he was given to shepherd. David’s sin with Bathsheba resulted in civil war and the death of four of his sons. The counting of Israel brought plague that wiped out thousands. Truly to those to whom more is given, more is required. When a very poor man sins, few others suffer but himself. When a powerful man sins, thousands may die.

When I read the words of David in the Psalms, I remember his life. I remember the importance of poverty, poverty of spirit. To be poor and needy has to do with a broken and contrite heart—not the house you live in or what you eat for dinner or what car you drive (or not). The poor man is the man who calls out to God night and day, who is small and despised in his own eyes, who has no sense of importance—but may have a strong sense of obligation and responsibility, responsibility for the things God has given him to manage and for the people God has given him to love. May God grant such poverty of spirit to us that regardless of our trappings, regardless of size of our wallet or our position in church or society, that regardless of what we do or do not have, we will be God’s poor and needy ones. For the strength of man is vain (empty) but those who fear the Lord will not be deprived of any good thing.


ageleris said...

Brilliant. This is worthy of St. John Chrysostom. Indeed, might one generalize this to all God's gifts, not only wealth, but health, personality, prophecy, strength, wisdom, etc. Might it even apply to such things (to the degree they depend on the calling of God like Paul's calling to Apostleship) as the dignity of priesthood and even the calling to monasticism.
Best wishes for a Happy New Year.

Fr. Michael said...

Dear ag1817, I'm glad that it encouraged you. I agree completely with you that wealth comes in all sorts of forms and in any of its forms it is liable for proper use by the humble or abuse by those who pervert it into identity. Even (or perhaps especially) the priesthood can easily be perverted in the minds of those who hold this dignity (and in the minds of those whom he servers) into an identity that one owns, somehow even apart from Christ.