There is a purity of purpose in the writing of James. This Sunday’s Second Reading, James 2:1-5, gets to the heart of how the Christian message is meant to transform daily behavior and the always roiling issue of wealth and poverty. It is worth reading in full:
My brothers and sisters, show no partiality
as you adhere to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.
For if a man with gold rings and fine clothes
comes into your assembly,
and a poor person in shabby clothes also comes in,
and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes
and say, "Sit here, please, "
while you say to the poor one, "Stand there, " or "Sit at my feet, "
have you not made distinctions among yourselves
and become judges with evil designs?
Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters.
Did not God choose those who are poor in the world
to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom
that he promised to those who love him?
James is direct, cuts through the B.S., and gets right to the point. There is little in this passage that is opaque. There are also few people who would say overtly to the shabbily dressed person, "sit at my feet." But that does not mean that we have made this passage our own today as Christians. We are, perhaps, more skilled at making qualifications to figure out some way to blunt the directness that cuts sharply to the quick. The reality is that even in as wealthy a nation as the United States, parishes and parochial schools are shuttering their windows and locking their doors, often in downtown and older, immigrant neighborhoods. In some cases, due to falling enrolment and a lack of parishioners, this might be necessary, the only prudent thing to do. Yet, increasingly, there are "have" and "have-not" parishes in the same diocese. Some parishes are unaffected by the economic downturn and their schools and parishes thrive due to the wealth within that parish. It is difficult not to thank God that wealthy people are supporting their parishes and allowing them to thrive. Could some of that money be used to aid other parishes in need, though, instead of expanding the offerings, buildings and budget of wealthy parishes? Could some money be made available to make certain that children of all classes could afford a Catholic school? I am not arguing for an economic system or government redistribution; I am arguing for Christian charity.
There is a related question here, also, that connects to the reading from James. Are there many parishes that are truly a mix of the wealthy, the middle-class, and the poor? The American parishes that I know tend to be one or two, but not all. If the poor are not told, "sit at my feet," it is often clear that they do not belong, nor are they made to feel welcome, in wealthier parishes. Sometimes it is simply not being able to afford the activities or schools that go along with being a member of the wealthier parishes. Other times it is not being invited to be a part of social events. One is sidelined for economic reasons, but not in an overt way. It is subtle, perhaps not even conscious, but it is corrosive, destructive and soul-destroying.
Also, Catholic schools, especially high-schools, are so high-priced in some cases that they become self-selecting schools for the wealthy, even though these schools offer tuition reductions and other means of support for those in need. And it is in these schools that "sit at my feet" can become a reality. Some children feel unwelcome because the economic disparities do lead to outspoken and overt comments, the measure of a child’s value based upon money, or the lack of it. They know they do not fit.
Frankly, I think these distinctions arise from fear. Poor people, even those who are simply not as well off as us, create a challenge to our daily lives that we would rather not think about or consider. If the poor are not near us, we do not have to consider their suffering or the fear that "it" could happen to us or the questions about how to use our wealth in the best way possible. "Do I really need that second SUV?" is not a question you may want to ask in the midst of that new car smell as you drive from the dealership. It can be easier to keep the poor at arm’s length, or a continent’s length: easier to send money to Central America, Africa, somewhere else - which I do not disdain - than sit in the pew week after week with poor people.
There is another reason for the fear, and that is James’ question: "Did not God choose those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he promised to those who love him?" The poor challenge us to live our faith, not in terms of belonging to the right parish or making certain our children get into the right schools, but in terms of our vulnerability and our need to rely on God in all things. This is to move from the land of fear to the land of faith, and it is frightening, but the wealth there is everlasting and easily distributed.