True Riches

Reflections on True Riches

Everything in this world can be turned towards good, everything without exception, even what is unrighteous. Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon, our Lord tells us in the Gospel, so that when it fails they may lead you into eternal habitations.

‘Mammon’, of course, is first of all money. Money is unrighteous because it is inescapably implicated in exploitation and other forms of injustice. I don’t mean that everyone who has and uses money is necessarily guilty of these things; but the systems, the economies and patterns of exchange in which money circulates and accords power, are systems which depend, as presently constituted, upon indefensible inequalities of enrichment and impoverishment; and in so far as these inequalities are indeed systematic, no one who shares them can avoid involvement with what is unrighteous. To repeat, this involvement isn’t necessarily a matter of personal sin. The systems in question are indeed unavoidable, and are what they are regardless of whether, within them, individuals behave well or badly. And these systems inescapably connect us to injustice, an injustice larger and more intractable than any personal pattern of conduct can overcome. This is in part what it means to live in a sinful world, a world decisively, even if not irreversibly, estranged from God. Part of what this condition of estrangement means is that in relation to each person’s thinking and choices, systematic injustice manifests a kind of surplus or excess, it has a life of its own, a life from which nothing can entirely insulate us, and we find it touching and affecting us, involving and connecting us, unawares, and even against our will. It is an essential dimension of the mystery of iniquity, the mysterium iniquitatis, that this should be so: the unavoidable and inescapable is not necessarily neutral, and can even be malign.

And yet unrighteous mammon can be turned to good. Each of us can enact this turn, if we use the money we have well, and especially if we use it for helping others. There can be an artistry to this, a capacity for insight and improvisation, even a kind of flair, which is often to be seen in the charitable inventiveness of the saints. Such artistry is distantly evoked by the worldly know-how of the steward in the Gospel, for charity has its own know-how, an intuition and fluency, that ought at least to equal the practical wisdom of the sons of this world.

This turning to what is good does not eliminate the connection to injustice, but it does contend with it, reversing it as far as one can within the horizons in which one must act. We do not thereby wash our hands entirely clean, but we do at least signal our willingness to be cleansed, and to some degree put into operation the cleansing itself. The cleansing consists in handing over, in yielding to others what seems to be ours, in our willing dispossession of that which the system (and indeed our own consciousness, informed by the system) identifies as our entitlement – or, at least, as our good fortune. And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? Here the system’s language of entitlement and good fortune is very precisely reversed. What seems to be yours is, according to the logic of dispossession, not yours but another’s: it is to be given to the one in need; whereas what is truly yours is the very gift of this self-dispossession: this is the grace given to you, which is truly yours, in order that what you think is yours may be given away. And yet how can we receive this grace if, in accordance with the system, we set our hearts on possession?

The system cannot, as we have said, be erased, but it can be subverted, and subversion consists in a dispossessive generosity the paradigm and origin of which is Christ Himself and His Cross. As the charity of Christ crucified established an unforeseeable and otherwise impossible friendship between God and man, so our participation in His charity embodies and extends it: the dispossessive generosity according to which unrighteous mammon is subject to subversive reversal begins to propagate a new kind of community, a new friendship, a perhaps hidden or at least indistinct reality which, nonetheless, both exemplifies and anticipates its consummation in the heavenly bond: Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails they may lead you into eternal habitations.

So that when it fails…We should note that, if the unrighteousness of mammon is inescapable, even in the condition of being subverted, inescapable also is mammon’s ultimate defeat. Finally the unrighteousness of mammon will be done away with, but this can only be when mammon itself is no more, when every economy and every system of exchange, which in a fallen world cannot exist without injustice, have been definitively superseded, and the transparency of friendship, the lucidity of charity, is the whole of the life that we lead. These are the true riches of which today’s Gospel speaks.

Only God can produce such riches, and He has promised that He will. But this means that every human utopia has, in the end, to yield to a fulfillment which God alone can confer. In the meantime we must learn to abide, not complacently but expectantly, remaining unflatteringly in our ambivalence and ambiguity, mindful always of the humanly ineradicable imperfection of all worldly order, even as we try to do what can be done to improve it. There is, after all, a very intimate connection between human utopias and human pride. We wish to see ourselves as pristine, ideally disengaged from all compromise, and so we project idealizing interpretations upon things as they are, or as we believe we can make them, and in this way accomplish the self-exoneration we crave. But we must learn to live un-exonerated, striving for righteousness as sons of light and yet aware that we cannot attain it by our own efforts, so that our fundamental dispositions are founded not in ourselves but in God, trusting and hoping in His promise to make all things new – even when such absolute renovation seems unforeseeably remote.

By Fr Philip Cleevely, Cong. Orat.

St Philip's Seminary, Toronto
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