Woe to You Rich

(Sixth Sunday, Year C)

This past week I have been thinking a lot about my friend Fr. Mike Holland. Many of your know him. He has been a priest of the Archdiocese of Seattle for over thirty years; for the past twenty has dedicated himself to Hispanic ministry. In November Fr. Mike was diagnosed with liver cancer. He had been responding beautifully to the treatments, but this week the disease took a turn for the worse. It's hard to see this happening to such a good and wonderful priest.

I had the privilege of spending a year w/ Fr. Mike at St. Mary's rectory in Seattle about a decade ago. What I remember most was Fr. Mike's simplicity of heart--and simple life style. He drove an old car, wore plain clothes and had very few possessions. He served people who were poor and he lived poorly himself. Right now he faces the ultimate poverty, a disease which makes him totally dependent on God.

Fr. Mike expressed that poverty last December 12. On the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe at the end of the Mass, he knelt down in front of the image of Our Lady and sang the beautiful marian hymn Paloma Blanca. I greet you, White Dove. Then he said out loud a prayer to her, offering to the Virgin whatever time God grants him. What poverty! What dependence on God!

Jesus tells us today, "Blessed are you poor." This doesn't just mean the physically poor, tho it is surely true that the materially poor much more readily recognize their dependence on God. I remember one family in Peru that I helped out on a monthly basis. The mother worked hard, but she had four children and her husband had abandoned them. When the children would come into the rectory with their mom, they would immediately kneel down before the crucifix, say an Our Father, a Hail Mary and sing the hymn Juntos como Hermanos Together like Brothers. Like Fr. Mike they recognized their dependence on God. For Fr. Mike his poverty was freely chosen; for them it was imposed by circumstances of their lives.

Jesus wants us to fight against that type of poverty. It can dehumanize and lead to resentment. But at the same time we struggle against poverty, we need to avoid the trap of riches. I became more aware of that while I was in Peru. After working day in and day out with people who had so little, I remember picking up a newspaper. There was a picture of a pretty girl without much clothes. I have to admit my eyes were attracted. It was an advertisement for liposuction. If you are overweight, it said, if you don't have exactly the figure you want, come to our clinic. We will suck the fat out of you.

What a world we live in! People spend thousands and thousands to have a beautiful body while others lack the basics of life. To be honest I'm not totally happy with my own physical make-up. Sometimes I see these young guys with thick beautiful hair flowing down to their shoulders, I wish just for one day I could have such a head of hair. Life is not fair. Then I read that for just a few thousand dollars I could have hair transplanted onto my head! That's the kind of world we live in. Nobody is satisfied with the body God has given them. I have met people who were strikingly beautiful, but they were not content. Something was wrong. A wrinkle here. A bulge there. And there are clinics ready and waiting to make them perfect--for a small fee.

That is one of the dangers of riches. People think money can buy anything, even physical beauty. But it gets worse. People will use money not only to buy a new body for themselves, but to buy another human being. I'm not talking about prostitution--tho obviously that is wrong, but there is something even more terrible going one. People use money to buy a new human being. It's called artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization. This is the ultimate use of money to gain control over another human being. "It's my right to have a child. I need a child to be fulfilled." This is consumerism carried to the extreme. We think we can buy anything, even a new human life.

Woe to you rich, Jesus says. Woe to you rich. You have so exalted man and his power that you have forgotten God and his commandment. The Catechism makes clear that artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization are against God's laws. You know, you could perhaps make some case for some kind of cosmetic surgery, even for going to a liposuction clinic. Perhaps. But you could never make a case for going to a fertility clinic that separates procreation from the act of marital love. I know this seems shocking to some of you. We've come to accept medicine and science as being almost like a god, an idol.

Medicine in itself is good, science has brought many wonderful benifits, but it must be used within God's law, that is, always treat man as a subject not as an object. We saw an example of that here in Seattle last year. There was a family from one of the African countries which practiced female circumcision. The parents went to a local doctor to ask him if he would "circumicise" their young daughter. The daughter herself was willing. The doctor was somewhat reluctant, but he thought that if he did not do it, the parents might have it done in unsanitary conditions. Well, the case became public and there was a huge furor. The doctor backed down. Why? He recognized it is wrong to use medical science to unnecessarily mutilate a human being. No one said "this is a very private matter between the woman and her doctor. We shouldn't impose our morality." On the contrary, there is a standard of right and wrong, a law of nature, a moral law, God's law (call it what you will) which we are all subject to. If a moral law applies to female circumcision, how much more should it be in the case of manipulating embryos, as we do with in vitro fertilization.

Our problem is that we think our riches give us the right to do anything. We make ourselves into gods. Today because our technology has become so powerful, we think it can trump the moral law. Our newspapers are constantly talking about "medical miracles." The subtle message is that medical science is god because it produces such "miracles." Remember when a woman in Iowa gave birth to seven children. The word "miracle" was used over and over to describe that multiple birth. And it was beautiful to see those seven little babies. But few people asked how many embryos are destroyed when science manipulates human fertility. In other words, to make such a spectacular birth possible, how many babies are discarded? Some would object to me calling those embryos "babies." After all, "they don't even look like babies." Well, in fact, that is exactly what a baby looks like shortly after conception. That's what you and I looked like at one time. I saw a TV program about in vitro fertilization. Before the embryos were implanted, they showed a video magnification to the woman who would receive them. When she saw them on the screen, she began to cry. "My babies! My babies!" She recognized them as human beings, but she was willing to risk their little lives so she could have at least one of them. The anomalies of this situation were covered over by the dazzling technology. As they say, it was a "miracle." If medical science can produce such wonders who needs to ask if there is any greater power? "Woe to you rich," Jesus says. "Woe to you rich."

How do married get themselves into a state that they will go to a fertility clinic, spend thousands to subject themselves to such procedures (which have in reality a small chance of "success")? Does it not begin by putting riches first. When our young people marry, we encourage them to "get settled" before they start a family. In other words, get a car, set up a bank account purchase a home, maybe even take a few vacations. Do all that before your lives are "burdened" with children. What good advice! Yes? No! What we are telling them is to put riches first. After you have bought everything you need, then you only need one more thing to make your home complete. Get a child! The child becomes one more commodity. When a couple waits so long to have a child, sometimes God does not send them one on their timetable. A certain desperation sets in--and they start thinking what was previously unthinkable--all that I described above. Purchasing a child by means of a fertility clinic. The desire to have a child is deep and beautiful--but we can never look at a human being as one more commidity to make us happy, even the most important one.

If you want to know the difference between those Jesus describes as the "blessed poor" and the "condemned rich" you can use this simple test. The rich are constantly talking about their "rights." And if there rights are violated they have powerful means to rectify the situation. The poor cannot do that. For them life is not a series of rights, but rather is seen as a gift. Don't misunderstand me. There are times when we should fight for our rights--and especially those of others. But our life we must approach as a pure gift. Let me use my own dad as an example. He was a working man and participated in the struggle for the rights of the worker to a union and a fair wage. But once when he underwent an operation and by an apparent medical blunder lost the use of a couple of fingers, his reaction was not to get a lawyer and sue. Dad knew that good things come to us - and bad as well. Life is a gift we receive, we accept and thank God for. That is the difference between heaven and hell. Hell is full of souls clinging to their rights. We have none before God - it is all a free gift. The joy of heaven is praising God for that gift. Blessed are you poor, says Jesus, the Kingdom of Heaven is yours.

That great difference between the "poor" and the "rich" is seen above all today in our attitude toward children. The Catechism says it straight out: "A child is not a right; a child is a gift." The rich are convinced they have a right to have a child to crown their fulfillment. The poor receive the child as a gift--theirs for a time, but really belonging to God not them. That's why Jesus says "Blessed are you poor." That's why Jesus gives most of his children to the poor--and to the poor of heart.

I'd like to conclude by returning to Father Mike. You know he is a big man, a big burly man. But children were not afraid of him. They came to him as if he were a teddy bear--the hugest one they had ever seen. One of my favorite memories is visiting one of the fields up in Skagit Valley with him. Whole Mexican families were working in the harvest. One of the little children, maybe two or three years old saw Padre Miguel. She came running to him. While he talked with the rest of the family, he lifted her up in his arms. He little arm barely fit around his neck. Father Mike had given up so much to follow Jesus, but he was receiving a hundred-fold payback. Blessed are you poor. The Kingdom of God is yours.

--Feb. 15, 1998

From Archives (Homilies for Sixth Sunday, Year C):

2010: Trust
2007: Not Taught But Caught
2004: Invisible Cats
2001: Beatitudes, Miseries & The Priest
1998: Woe to You Rich

Wedding Homily

Other Homilies

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

Catholic Answers

CatholicHome Study Resources

Peter Kreeft

Homily on Boston Scandal

Boston Globe's Misleading Article on Catholic Church