Stairway to Heaven

This year's theme of the Emmitsburg Council of Churches' six Lenten Services is the "Stairway to Heaven". The six steps that we will suggest are the proper uses of wealth, power and love, praise of God, self-sacrifice and faith. The topic of the first talk is the proper use of wealth.

You may have heard the joke about the rich man who dies and goes to the Pearly Gates where he meets St. Peter. Peter asks the man what good he has done. Peter asks if the man had gone to church every Sunday. The man shakes his head "No." Peter asks if he had given money to the poor. The man shakes his head from side to side. Peter winces and said it isn't looking good. Peter uses his cell phone to call Jesus. Peter reports the case of the man in front of him. Jesus is about to give an answer. The man shakes his hands wildly to get the attention of St. Peter. The man remembers that once he had given a dollar to a poor man. The rich man smiles proudly, relieved because of his act of charity. Jesus replies to Peter, "Give him his dollar back. And tell him to go to hell."

While wealth in itself is morally neutral, what we do with our wealth matters morally.

"A man came up to Jesus and said, "Teacher, what good must I do to possess everlasting life? . Jesus replied, "You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; honor your father and your mother; and love your neighbor as you love yourself." The young man said to him, "I have kept all these; what do I need to do further?" Jesus told him, "If you seek perfection, go, sell your possessions, and give to the poor. You will then have treasure in heaven. Afterward, come back and follow me." Hearing these words, the young man went away sad, for his possessions were many." (Mt. 19.16-24)

Philosophically speaking, poverty is not a virtue; it is an objective evil, an absence of a good. Spiritual and material poverty, however, lived for the right reasons, becomes a virtue.

The Old Testament law and patriarchs repeatedly urged believers to take care of widows and orphans. The Old Testament prophets warned against the injustices prevalent in society. The psalmist writes: "Those who trust in their wealth are like the beasts that are destroyed." (Ps. 49.20)

Jesus lived simply. He was born in a manger. He grew up as a carpenter's son who chose to become an itinerant teacher, preacher and healer. He reported that he had no place to lay his head. His companions were oftentimes the outcasts of society. He never accumulated wealth. In imitation of Jesus we try to live simply for the sake of the gospel and for the benefit of those in need.

Jesus never condemns anyone for possessing wealth. He praises the stewards who developed their ten and five talents into respectively ten and five additional talents. The one steward who hid his talent and did not develop his talent, this is the person whom the Lord condemns. (..). All three gospels except Luke accept the reality of poverty as they report Jesus saying, "The poor you will have with you always." (Mk. 14.5ff).

Jesus, however, warns the rich. He states that "it is more difficult for a rich person to enter into the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle." In Jesus' time, a camel had to get down on all fours and inch his way through the narrow opening which served as the doorway through the wall of the city. Jesus adds, "You cannot serve both God and mammon." (Lk. 16.13) In Jesus' parable about Dives and Lazarus, Lazarus was raised to the bosom of Abraham, but the rich man was condemned to the torments of hell (Lk. 16.19-31). In another story Jesus praises a widow while he criticized the wealthy: "they made contributions out of their surplus, but she from her want has given what she could not afford - every penny she had to live on." (Lk. 21.1-4) The despised tax collector Zacchaeus said to Jesus: "I give half of my belongings to the poor. If I have defrauded anyone in the least, I pay him back fourfold." Jesus praised this short man: "Today salvation has come to this house, for this is what it means to be a son of Abraham." (Lk. 19.1ff) The way in which we treat the poor and needy serves as the criterion for judgment: "When I was hungry, did you give me to eat? When I was thirsty, did you give me to drink? When I was naked, did you clothe me? When I was sick or in prison, did you visit me. Whatever you did for the least of my brothers and sisters, that you did unto me." (Matt. 25.36-48)

Historically, the Church has assisted those in need. In the early Church St. Paul of Tarsus exhorted the readers of his Great Epistles to the Romans, Corinthians and Galatians to be generous to the Christians at Jerusalem. Paul instructs the child of his heart, St. Timothy: "Tell those who are rich in this world's goods not to be proud, and not to rely on so uncertain a thing as wealth. Let them trust in God who provides us richly with all things for our use. Charge the rich to do good, to be rich in good works and generous, sharing what they have. Thus they will build a secure foundation for the future, for receiving that life which is life indeed." (1 Tim. 6.17-19) St. James sternly warns the rich: "Your wealth has rotted. Your fine wardrobe has grown moth-eaten, your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion shall be a testimony against you." The early Church drew its members from among the poor. Not until 175 AD, did the non-poor join the church in any significant numbers.

When we study the lives of the saints, a few common denominators emerge: all the saints excelled in the practice of prayer and poverty. Martin Luther was renowned for his hospitality. St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marillac are hailed as patron saints of charity and servants of the poor. John and Charles Wesley instructed their followers to live simply. Elizabeth Ann Seton encouraged her Sisters of Charity: "Live simply so that others may simply live."

Right here at Emmitsburg we have seen wonderful witnesses to living simply and sharing talents generously. Last year, the Council of Churches supported six Christians of various denominations to provide solar heating panels to a remote village in Kenya. Our local missionaries were inspired and led by Pastor Jon Greenstone. Last month, every one of our churches contributed generously to the victims of the earthquake at Haiti. Every day, the people of Emmitsburg support the needy through our combined contributions to Seton Center, the Food Bank and the Catoctin Pregnancy Center. Many organizations such as the Lions Club, American Legion, VFW, Vigilant Fire Hose Company, and the Ambulance Company, and countless other organizations aid those in greatest need.

May I share two contemporary examples. First, Tiger Woods. Tragically, as the saying goes: "he had it all, and it wasn't enough for him." We can never be satisfied completely on earth. St. Augustine explained in the 5th century, "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you."

Second, a very positive example: a young Catholic graduate of Niagara University was fortunate to work for the owner of the Maid of the Mist tourist boats. This young man took a risk and purchased the company. Over the course of a few decades, he became a multimillionaire. He and his family have donated to every church denomination and every not-for-profit organization in and around Niagara Falls. He lives in a mansion that overlooks the escarpment formed thousands of years ago by the falls. He is rich in material goods and he is rich in Jesus Christ. When this man's teenage grandson died a few years ago, thousands of people paid their respects at the funeral home and at Mass. While only a handful of people could identify with this man in his wealth, everybody could identify with him in his suffering. Rich and poor, black and white, city and suburban folks, bank presidents and soup kitchen guests all came to pay their respects. This man is truly rich: rich in faith, hope and charity, rich in family and friends, rich in Jesus Christ. I trust that these generous multi-millionaires who abound everywhere will have a high place in heaven. What matters morally is what we do with the gifts that God has given us, and with the wealth we have received.

For us, the purpose of our lives is to become rich in Jesus Christ. We all need material goods, and we thank God for them, and we share them generously. Our Christian faith requires us to expend our wealth in a way that praises God and serves all of God's people. This sharing, going out of ourselves, transcending ourselves, conquering selfishness/sel-centeredness brings us joy. Joy is defined as the emotional response to the experience of harmony. Living simply and sharing our wealth makes us happy and holy. As Jesus says in Luke's gospel, "Blessed are the poor;" and in Matthew's gospel, "Blessed are the poor in spirit." The right use of wealth is one of the first steps on the Stairway to Heaven.

Read other homilies by Father O'Malley