Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: 1st Book of Kings 3:5, 7-12
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 119:57, 72, 76-77, 127-130
Second Reading: St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans 8:28-30
Gospel: According to St. Matthew 13:44-52
The phrase “downward mobility” isn’t one that is often heard, nor is it often a goal to which people aspire. The late Dutch priest, psychologist, and spiritual writer Henri Nouwen used this phrase to describe his journey from being a professor at Harvard, Yale, and Notre Dame to being the pastor of Daybreak, the L’Arche community in Toronto. L’Arche (French for “the Ark”) is an international organization of homes and support networks for adults with intellectual disabilities founded by Swiss theologian Jean Vanier in 1964.
It was through his friendship with Vanier that Henri Nouwen became familiar with L’Arche, but it was because of core member Raymond (“core member” is the L’Arche phrase for a person who lives in one of their communities) that he dedicated the last decade of his life to L’Arche. Nouwen just happened to be visiting Daybreak when Raymond was hit by a car and critically injured. Amidst this distress was the blame that Raymond’s family placed on Daybreak for the accident. Nouwen’s background in psychology and pastoral theology helped to bring about the healing and reconciliation of Raymond’s family and the community, prompting an invitation for Nouwen to become the full-time pastor of Daybreak.
Henri Nouwen’s journey took him from the sophisticated world of Cambridge cocktail parties to a community where the core members had never heard of Harvard and did not give the obligatory “wow” when Henri told them that he had taught there. This was Henri’s “a-ha moment” and helped him to focus his writings and his life on the pursuit of downward mobility.
The story of Henri Nouwen is relevant this weekend because of the ease with which one can misinterpret the readings as justifying what has been called the Gospel of Prosperity. Prominent pastors and televangelists from Oral Roberts to Joel Osteen preach the message of material gain, physical well-being and peace of mind as the rewards for faithfulness to God. This seems to have worked fairly well for Osteen who, with his $10 million house and over $50 million in the bank, seems to be a modern-day King Solomon.
Sadly, this false gospel is very appealing – to the rich and poor alike. For the rich, it is a security blanket with which they can wrap a conscience that might feel guilt for maybe living in a $10 million, or even a $1 million, home. For the poor, it is an understandable here-and-now rendering of the words of Jesus that they will inherit the Kingdom. It is as if Reaganomics and liberation theology somehow got together and had a baby.
When St. Paul tells the people of Rome, “We know that all things work for good for those who love God,” he is preaching anything but earthly prosperity, and Jesus makes it quite clear that it is the Kingdom of Heaven that is the buried treasure and the pearl of great price for which one sells all that one has in this world.
Given the choice between the Gospel of Prosperity and the Gospel of Downward Mobility, it is easy to see why people are drawn to the former and not to the latter. It’s hard to sell consumer excess to people by appealing to their desire to be downwardly mobile, and so the advertising world understandably bombards us constantly with their gospel message of material well-being as your reward, as what you owe yourself. Maybe Barclay’s Bank said it best: “Luxury. Status. Convenience. You deserve it. Extraordinary rewards for extraordinary people. Call 111-WEALTH.”
Yet, the call of the follower of Jesus, the Man who took downward mobility to its logical conclusion, is to a different phone number and a different Gospel, because it looks to a different Kingdom.
Henri Nouwen recognized that “The society in which we live suggests in countless ways that the way to go is up. Making it to the top, entering the limelight…that’s what draws attention, gets us on the front page of the newspaper, and offers us the rewards of money and fame.” And insofar as a priest and professor can live such a life, Henri Nouwen lived that life.
But, fittingly, at Daybreak he saw the light of a radically different path of the downward mobility of Jesus, and in answer to his question, “Why is the way of Jesus worth choosing?” Nouwen replies, “Because it is the way to the Kingdom, the way Jesus took, and the way that gives everlasting life.”