There is a strong contrast between our Gospel and our second reading today. Jesus heals a deaf man with a groan toward heaven. St. James warns us about making distinctions between rich and poor parishioners. On the one hand: miracles, on the other: the practical structure. That is the Church: miracles and structure. Without structure, how would we get anything done? Without miracles, what would be the point of all the structure? We have built a worldwide structure of dioceses and parishes in order to tell everyone about Jesus, but what people want are the miracles: to be healed, to be changed, to be forgiven by God. The Holy Spirit can bring the miracles, but only where there are people to work them.
The dilemma that St. James addresses is still present today: how do we build up the Church without betraying the reason for the Church? If a poor person of no renown joins the Church, we do not stop them, but when a famous person, a wealthy person, an important person joins the Church, we make sure that they feel very welcome. Of course we act this way, because it will not make the news that just another poor person wants to join, but when a celebrity goes through RCIA we can expect paparazzi at the Easter Vigil.
And wealthy people in the Church, we cannot deny, get special attention when they are very generous. They are named Knights of the Holy Sepulchre; they might get to meet the Pope; they certainly meet the bishop a few times each year. Does God want their money? No. He has no use for it. But let us be honest, the Church does. I like it when these lights are on and there is heat in the winter, air conditioning in the summer, microphones and speakers, food for me to eat, and who will provide for the poor if not those who are able to?
As I said, God does not want anyone’s money, but he does want their generosity. God wants each of us to know what it is to give to others. A greater amount does not signify a greater generosity. Jesus says that the poor widow who gave one dollar was more generous than all the others because they gave out of their abundance but she gave out of her poverty, but when it actually was time to repair the temple, her small gift would only buy a little and the larger gifts, though they were less generous, would do most of the work.
So what are we to do? In the ideal Christian community, everyone gives as much as they are able and then promptly forgets how much each person gave. In the world as it is, someone who gives a very large gift wants to be certain that it will not be wasted, and often, the people who are able to give the most are the people whom the pastor most needs to consult on the financial care of the parish since they have the connections and the experience in business.
So what should we do? Do we need to make distinctions among ourselves, giving recognition to those who make our ministry possible? Yes, but having admitted the importance of money I will not agree that it is all-important or even the most important. I know a woman, a poor woman, who works so hard in her parish and prays so fervently that everywhere she goes a great devotion to Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament springs up. When she moved, she left behind Perpetual Adoration with every hour doubly filled, and immediately began strengthening the devotion in her new parish. If I had to choose between her moving into my parish or a generous millionaire, I know who has more to offer.
Perhaps it seems unfair that the rich only have to write a check, and the famous only have to agree to appear at the parish festival, while the contributions of the poor, unless they are very extraordinary, are likely to go unnoticed, but this world is unfair like that. I think that the responsibility of the ministers of the Church is not to ignore generous wealthy people but to be observant and see the generosity of every parishioner: the person who organizes Communion to the homebound, the person who puts in untold hours on the fundraiser, the person who makes sure that there is food at every funeral. I have heard people say, “If I won the lottery, I would give quite a donation to the Church.” How nice, but imaginary money does not get the lights lit. The guy who comes in on his day off to change the bulbs does though.
Sure, if there were enough money, we could hire people to do all that, but that would be a very sad parish. Not really alive, just pretending. Anyway, we could not hire people to spend hours every day in prayer, and I know that there are parishioners who do that. We could not hire people to work miracles, and what kind of Church would we be without miracles? We could not hire people to love other people for us, and without love we would be dead.
So let us treat the rich man who comes into church well. Let us say, “Sit here please.” Then, let us treat the poor man who comes into church well. Let us say, “Sit right next to him please.” I do not think that St. James is telling us to treat everyone equally badly. We should be going out of our way to treat everyone equally well. We should welcome each person to this church the way we would welcome a king or the richest man, the way we would welcome Jesus.
Sure, there will be distinctions in this world: honors and dinners and such, but these will be overturned in the end. The first reading is all about how the ways of this world are going to be overturned. There will be water in the desert, the blind will see, the mute will sing, and everyone will receive their recompense from God. The rich will be responsible to Jesus for whether they were generous enough with what he gave them; the famous will be responsible to Jesus for whether they used their God-given talents to glorify God rather than themselves; and every person will be responsible in this same way for how we used the money, the talents, the time, the strength, the health, and everything else that God gave us.