At the close of the last lecture I referred to the problem presented by “the poor” in the Gospel. As a rule, the poor of whom Jesus was thinking were also those whose hearts are open towards God, and hence what is said of them cannot be applied without further ceremony to the poor generally. In considering the social question we must, therefore, put aside all those sayings of Jesus which obviously refer to the poor in the spiritual sense. These include, for instance, the first Beatitude, whether we accept it in the form in which it appears in Luke or in Matthew. The Beatitudes associated with it make it clear that Jesus was thinking of the poor whose hearts were inwardly open towards God. But, as we have no time to go through all the sayings separately, we must content ourselves with some leading considerations in order to establish the most important points.
Jesus regarded the possession of worldly goods as a grave danger for the soul, as hardening the heart, entangling us in earthly cares, and seducing us into a vulgar life of pleasure. “A rich man shall hardly enter the kingdom of heaven.”
The contention that Jesus desired, so to speak, to bring about a general condition of poverty and distress, in order that he might afterwards make it the basis of his kingdom of heaven—a contention which we encounter in different forms—is erroneous. The very opposite is the case. Want he called want, and evil he called evil. Far from showing them any favour, he made the greatest and strongest efforts to combat and destroy them. In this sense, too, his whole activity was a saving activity, that is to say, a struggle against evil and against want. Nay, we might almost think that he overestimated the depressing load of poverty and affliction; that he occupied himself too much with it; and that, taking the moral bearings of life as a whole, he attributed too great an importance to those forces of sympathy and mercy which are expected to counteract this state of things. But neither, of course, would this view be correct. He knows of a power which he thinks still worse than want and misery, namely, sin; and he knows of a force still more emancipating than mercy, namely, forgiveness. His discourses and actions leave no doubt upon this point. It is certain, therefore, that Jesus never and nowhere wished to keep up poverty and misery, but, on the contrary, he combated them himself and bid others combat them. The Christians who in the course of the Church’s history were for countenancing mendicancy and recommending universal pauperisation, or sentimentally coquetted with misery and distress, cannot with any show of reason appeal to him. Upon those, however, who were anxious to devote their whole lives to the preaching of the Gospel and the ministry of the Word—he did not ask this of everyone, but regarded it as a special calling from God and a special gift—upon them he enjoined the renunciation of all that they had, that is to say, all worldly goods. Yet that does not mean that he relegated them to a life of beggary. On the contrary, they were to be certain that they would find their bread and their means of livelihood. What he meant by that we learn from a saying of his which was accidentally omitted from the Gospels, but has been handed down to us by the apostle Paul. In the ninth chapter of his first epistle to the Corinthians he writes: “The Lord hath ordained that they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel.” An absence of worldly possessions he required of the ministers of the Word, that is, of the missionaries, in order that they might live entirely for their calling. But he did not mean that they were to beg. This is a Franciscan misconception which is perhaps suggested by Jesus’ words but carries us away from his meaning.