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The Way of the Poor Christ and the Gospel of Well-Being

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The day’s gospel reading from Mark is about Jesus’ question “Who do you say that I am?” (Mk. 8:27–33) Peter seemed to understand when he gave the answer “You are the Anointed One”.  His subsequent attempt to put a stop to Jesus speaking about his suffering and death reveals his misunderstanding:  he thought — like the Jews of his time — that the one favored, chosen, selected by God will come to no harm.  On this account, Jesus rebukes him:  “You don’t think as God thinks but as men.”

Peter can be compared to those who hold onto a Gospel of well-being.  This “gospel” proclaims that the man of faith will prosper.  The idea is found in some Wisdom passages, it is true.  But preachers of the gospel of well-being simply talk of faith and blessings, as if faith alone can lift one up from one’s economic and financial misery.  They don’t say that the passages about faith and blessings should be taken along with those passages which talk about industry, hardwork, patience in suffering.  The man of faith will have his blessings, true, but he cannot be lazy, nor be a drunkard, nor be someone who goes with prostitutes.  Wealth and prosperity is a fringe benefit, not the goal of true religion.

Peter’s misunderstanding goes even deeper, in fact.  He can be compared to those who think that being near to God means power.  Jesus is near to God so he has power and can perform miracles.  And because “near” to God, he would be protected from God’s enemies.  Filipinos would say “malakas sa Diyos, eh!”  And Peter would just be happy to be associated with a man like that: being an associate (a “friend” in Jewish terms) of Jesus, makes one also “malakas” with God.

“You think as man do, not as God”, Jesus says to Peter.  Relationship with God, especially an intimate one, should mean that one would embrace God’s will, even if it results to suffering.  “In good times” a proverb goes, “it is hard to find a friend; but a friend in times of suffering, is a friend indeed.”  Abraham was called “God’s friend” not because he had a son in old age, but because Abraham did not refuse when God asked him to offer Isaac in sacrifice.

In the letter of James (James 2:1–9), the Christian community is told not to favor the rich, or choose them over the poor.  What is important for us in what he says is not so much about the rich being bad, but that the poor are favored by God.  The poor after all are the ones who shall inherit the kingdom (cf. Sermon on the Mount).  We shouldn’t spiritualize this saying such that we interpret this passage as referring to “non-economic poor” for two reasons:  in the Scriptures, “poor” most often refers to the economically challenged. Even in Matthew “poor in spirit” refers to those who do not have any security to hold onto except God; they are the Christians who have been dispossessed during persecution. Second, James later on would speak about the poor as those who are deprived (James 2:15).  The responsorial psalm confirms what James is saying.  The poor are special in God’s eyes, not because they are good, but because God values them.  He knows that He is the only one to whom they can depend on (Ps. 34:6–7).  In other words, even being “malakas” with God has to be redefined.  To be “malakas” with God does not mean being “near” to Him.  Being “malakas” with God means making Him one’s only security: To be ready to become deprived of anything but Him; to be poor — even economically poor — if He wants it.  This is the way of the Suffering Servant.  It is the way that Peter cannot understand.  But it is the way of the poor Christ: he who had no place to lay his head on; he who would be rejected, made to suffer, be killed, but rise again on the third day.

Originally posted 2008-05-15 11:33:59. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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