Scrooge denies himself more bread. Christmas Carol 1951.
And raising his eyes toward his disciples Jesus said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours. Luke 6:20.
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In the great, classic, movie of Dickens incomparable Christmas Carol, Scrooge, having closed his office up, growled at his clerk about taking the next day off (as it was Christmas Eve), took his melancholy dinner in his usual melancholy tavern. As the waiter passed by, he growled, “Waiter, more bread”. The waiter responds, “That’s a ha’penny extra Sir” (perhaps one cent). Silence. Scrooge grumbles, “No more bread”.
I was reminded of that scene when researching today’s gospel passage, Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, perhaps the spiritual heart of Jesus’ message. The first beatitude goes, “Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours.” Well, it’s amazing what you find out with a little bit of reading. That word “poor”, for example. In the original Greek, the language in which Luke wrote his gospel, the word poor is rendered πτωχός (ptōchos or ptōkhos). Yes it means poor, but it’s a special poor in Greek; it means utterly destitute, with no visible means of support, totally bereft, a state of beggary. There are other examples in the gospels: In the parable of Lazarus, who is the poor man at the gate of the fine-dining and living rich man, Lazarus is πτωχός (Luke 16:19-31). The eager, but rich, young man who is invited to follow Jesus, who is told to give all he has to the πτωχός, goes away sad, but still rich (Mark 10:17-27). So Scrooge, who is extremely wealthy, denies himself a piece of bread as it is a ha’penny extra. That struck me as an extreme case of self-imposed πτωχός, but not the way Jesus means it. There is no sense in Scrooge that he is spiritually destitute and hence must depend on the love and beneficence of God. He sees nothing wrong with his miserable state, until after his memorable night with the three spirits. Only then does he acknowledge his need for reform because his whole life is in a state of delusional beggary. This man has, in a sense, destroyed his soul; here we have πτωχός equalling death, not life. And he is in no way happy in the genuine sense of the word, which at root means blessed. Scrooge is unable to do anything about it on his own, as we see from his reluctance to follow his three spiritual visitors, as he is spiritually dead. You might say he’s in a state of mortal sin… In the course of the story, this changes. Scrooge, realizing that he still has the chance to change, does so, and as a consequence, becomes blessed, using his wealth in wonderful ways which help others and is happy as a consequence. In other words, his spirit is no longer stifled by the ways of this world where wealth is the be all and end all, but is freed to be what God wants us to be πτωχός in the ways of the world, and super rich in the ways of God.
The giddy, happy Scrooge realizing he can change his life for the better, to the bafflement of Mrs. Dilber his housekeeper. Christmas Carol, 1951.
Now one has to be careful here. I do not think Jesus wants us all to be beggars, but I do think he wants us to place what is important in this life ahead of wealth, power and glory. Those elements, deemed absolute by many in the eyes of the world, are not so. They are a corruption of Jesus’ idea of πτωχός. Wealth, power and glory for our own sake are the opposite of Jesus’ meaning. If, by chance, using our talents, we have become wealthy, powerful and considered glorious, then, as the psalm says, Not to us, LORD, not to us but to your name be the glory (Psalm 115). In this psalm, wealth as glorified by the world is seen for what it is, cold, greedy and in a real sense, worthless (look at what it had done to Scrooge!). It’s what is done with it that counts: it is a means to a much more glorious end, the service and love of others.
So, looking at today’s gospel through these eyes gives us a perspective, I believe, on what Jesus means. And today’s second reading states why we should focus on God and others, rather than ourselves. Jesus did that, and what happened? He conquered the greatest enemy of all, death itself. And here we are, invited to follow that same pathway, no matter where it might lead. For most of us, that will not lead to a murderous final calamity such as the Lord’s, but we should be prepared for anything that might come our way, good or bad, knowing that our ultimate goal and pathway is union with God and the saints. Love of God, neighbor and self, in that order, is, as ever, our path and goal.
The Assumption of the Virgin, Botticini c.1476, The National Gallery, London, UK.
(I invite you to contrast this picture with the black and white picture which introduces today’s reflection…..)
Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.
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