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The Rich, the Poor and the Honour of God

The Rich, the Poor and the Honour of God

Observations on A Mission for the body of the Society

by Roberto Jaramillo SJ (PJ93 pp. 35-40)

Joseph Nguyn Công Đoan SJ


The author, in explaining the reason for God’s option for the poor, attempts to redefine the theological source of the Ignatian insight into the apostolic criteria of election.

     He begins by expressing his uneasiness with an idea that the 34th General Congregation took from a speech by Fr Kolvenbach (Detroit 26/06/91) affirming that “God has always been the God of the poor because the poor are the visible proof of a failure in creation.” This he deems to be completely wrong (p.35); completely against the message of Jesus in the gospels (p. 37). He says: “We cannot in any way affirm that God opts for the poor because they are the visible proof of the failure of creation.” The result would be a simplistic anthropomorphism.

     He goes on to express his view strongly: “I think and believe that God chooses the poor so as to save us all. God chooses the poor because only in the hearts and lives of poor people can space be found for the novelty of his liberating proposal – salvation.” An eloquent paragraph follows, a panegyric powerful enough to lift one’s heart and make one commit oneself to the service of the poor.

     I agree with his observations on the role of the Vision of La Storta in understanding the apostolic vocation of both Ignatius and the Society, and also with his observations on the task of the 35th General Congregation.

     Nevertheless, while reading the article I was particularly struck by two things: the categorical, unquestioned judgement of the author, and his way of approaching the Bible. I wonder if his explanation of the reason why God opts for the poor (“because only in the hearts and lives of poor people can space be found for the novelty of his liberating proposal – salvation”) is evangelical. Is it inscribed in the Ignatian understanding of the criteria for apostolic discernment?

     Having specialised in biblical studies, I am surprised by the way the author treats the Bible. The first quotation from the ‘interminable list’ of references is provided by abridging or short-circuiting, perhaps without even opening the Bible: “...he was rich, but he became poor to redeem us from our sins”(1) (2 Cor. 8:9)(2) The text appears in a context where St. Paul brings Christ’s example in order to invite generosity in sharing with poor communities: “Remember how generous the Lord Jesus was; he was rich but he became poor for your sake, to make you rich out of his poverty.”(3) Also to be noted is the cursory way in which he identifies Jesus’ entourage: “his friends and intimate acquaintances are always poor.” Can we say for sure that Zaccheus became poor (materially) in spite of his generosity: “the half of my goods I give to the poor”? Was Joseph of Arimathaea, member of the Council who had had a tomb carved out of a rock for himself, who was able to meet Pilate and ask for the body of Jesus, materially poor? The Gospel according to St Matthew designates him unequivocally as “a rich man of Arimathaea” (Mt. 27:57). Was Nicodemus, who “brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds” (Jn. 19:39) materially poor? The women who, together with the Twelve, followed Jesus and who “provided for them out of their own resources” (Lk 8: 2-3), were they materially poor? Mary of Bethany who “took a pound of a very costly ointment, pure nard (of an estimated three hundred denarii value according to Judas) and with it anointed the feet of Jesus” (Jn. 12:3), was she materially poor? At the moment of Jesus’ death, at the most tragic moment, the other disciples considered by the author as “his friends and intimate acquaintances” abandoned him whereas the two rich men put their lives at risk by asking for the body of Jesus and burying it with dignity. The presence of the rich in Jesus’ entourage is awkward in the light of the author’s categorical remarks about the poor as well as the rich. Is that why he gets rid of them so summarily?

     The author questions the epistemological grounds of the assertion: “What epistemology (type of knowledge, criteria of judgement and value) lies behind the statement that the poor are a visible proof of the failure of creation? For Jesus, are not the rich precisely this proof?” (p. 38). We could ask the author in return the very same epistemological question as answer to his rhetorical question: “For Jesus, are not the rich precisely this proof?” The same thing can be done with his thesis: “I think and believe that God chooses the poor so as to save us all. God chooses the poor because only in the hearts and lives of poor people can space be found for the novelty of his liberating proposal – salvation.” To be sure, the opposition between the rich and the poor is a fundamental theme in the Bible, but which rich and which poor? The author seems to take only the material connotation into account. The Bible makes a distinction between different kinds of rich people: greedy and oppressive rich and those who distribute their riches to the poor are not lumped together. In the Gospel, while it is true that the rich young man does not provide “space for the novelty of his (God’s) liberating proposal-salvation,” this is not the case with Zaccheus, Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, nor the women who provided for Jesus. The author’s thesis seems to deny that possibility to rich people. With such a perspective, the opposition between the rich and the poor seems closer to a Marxist, not an evangelical epistemology. The Marxist-Leninist revolution is merciless towards the rich and exploits poor people’s aspirations, urging them on to realise the liberation that consists in overthrowing the rich.

     The Gospel according to St. Luke, which unfolds as the accomplishment of Isaiah’s prophecy read by Jesus in Nazareth, proclaims: “Happy are you who are poor: yours is the kingdom of God” (6:20). However, the Gospel according to St Matthew, which presents Jesus as the Emmanuel (God-with-us), proclaims: “How happy are the poor in spirit” (5:3). We must consider both versions in order to understand better the position of the rich and of the poor in the matter of salvation. Lk 12:13-21 is a sermon against greed and is addressed to all, the poor and the rich, taking the example of the rich fool. The message it offers is an invitation to become “rich in the sight of God.” The parable of the rich man and Lazarus the poor man in Lk 16 is indeed an illustration of Lk 6: 20-26: Happy are you, Alas for you. But the message is also an invitation to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor. The rich man failed to bridge the distance that lay between his table and the poor man at his door, and that short distance becomes, in eternity, a chasm that no one can cross. The whole of Lk 16 is a teaching on how to make good use of earthly riches. Lk 19 shows that Zaccheus has managed to bridge the gap: “Look sir, I am going to give half my property to the poor,” and Jesus declares: “Today, salvation has come to this house.” Thus Zaccheus puts into literal practice Jesus’ teaching on the good use of money (Lk 16:9): “Use money, tainted as it is, to win you friends.” Notice the number and situation of those texts in the structure of Luke’s Gospel: the Beatitudes and their opposite (Lk 6); the teaching on the way to Jerusalem where Jesus is about to accomplish his exodus (the significance of which will be revealed to the disciples by Jesus himself in Lk 24: 45-48): chapters 12, 14, 16, 18 (the rich young man) and 19 in Jericho, the last stage of the journey before the arrival in Jerusalem. The story of Zaccheus is followed by the parable of the pounds to round off the teaching on the way before the entry into Jerusalem (Lk 19: 28). The teaching on the use of earthly riches is illustrated by characters: the (unnamed) rich fool in Lk 12; the unfaithful steward representing the wisdom of the sons of this world; then the (unnamed) rich man and Lazarus in poverty in chapter 16; the (unnamed) rich young man who rejects Jesus’ offer in chapter 18 and Zaccheus who offers to put Jesus’s teaching into actual practice and is confirmed by Jesus himself in chapter 19. Among those characters are the disciples who abandon their belongings in order to follow Jesus permanently; they too are confirmed by Jesus. This insistence shows the importance of teaching the good use of earthly riches within the community, without distinction between rich and poor. All need to be educated so as to have the right attitude towards earthly riches and thus inherit eternal life. This point reminds us of the Principle and Foundation of the Spiritual Exercises.

     The three Synoptics report the story of the rich young man who went away sad when he heard Jesus’ answer to his insistent question and Jesus’ comment on how hard it is for the rich to enter into the Kingdom, that is, the danger of riches. His audience reacts thus: “In that case” said the listeners “Who can be saved?’’’ It is worth noting that Luke reports the reaction of those who heard without distinguishing between the rich and the poor. Jesus replies, “Things that are impossible for men are possible for God.”(4) Matthew also reports the reaction of the disciples: “When the disciples heard this they were astonished, saying, ‘Who can be saved then?’ they asked. Jesus gazed at them. ‘For men’ he told them, ‘this is impossible; for God everything is possible.’”(5) Mark is more dramatic: “They were more astonished than ever. ‘In that case’ they said to one another, ‘who can be saved?’ Jesus gazed at them. ‘For men’, he said, ‘it is impossible, but not for God because everything is possible for God’”(6) Notice how Mark emphasizes the look in Jesus’ eye: Jesus gazed at them. What does that look add to the meaning of Jesus’ words As far as they are concerned they have been saved, they have received the Kingdom in Jesus’ person. If they have been able to abandon their belongings, however meagre, in order to follow Jesus, it is surely God’s powerful work, not their own. The three Synoptics show us that Jesus’ words filled Peter with joy, “We have left everything and followed you” (Mk 10.29). Luke is more specific, “‘What about us? We left all we had to follow you’” (Lk 18: 28). In one of his books, Cardinal Martini relates the story of a hermit who wonders if he is the poorest man in the world, having nothing other than a rag and a half-broken jug. God transports him to a palace and says to him: “The master of this palace is poorer than you are, for he is attached to nothing whereas you are still attached to your rag and your half-broken jug.” The poor person does not necessarily have a ‘poor’ heart; it is through God’s power that the rich and the poor can have a ‘poor’ heart that is ready to welcome salvation.

     In reading St Paul’ letters, it is quite clear that there were rich and poor people in his communities, masters and slaves who lived in a state of fraternal sharing, not only among members of the same com­munity but also between communities. And if some person or other offered his house for community gatherings, it was because he had the material means to do so. The letter to Philemon shows how the problem of slavery can be re­solved without a Marxist revolution, when rich and poor, masters and slaves become brothers and sisters in Christ, through the power of salvation in Christ.

     Reading the Gospel thus, one may well wonder whether “only in the hearts and lives of poor people can space be found for the novelty of his liberating proposal – salvation” (providing we understand the meaning of salvation brought by Christ), or whether it is rather God who creates that room in the hearts of the poor as well as in the hearts of the rich. Saint Paul did not hesitate to affirm, “It is God, for his own loving purpose, who puts both the will and the action into you.” (Phil. 2:13). No one can doubt that the Bible shows God’s preference for the poor, the oppressed. But explaining that preference in terms of the space available in the heart of the poor amounts to attributing to God what Jesus considered worldly wisdom: loving those who love you, greeting only your brothers … Tax collectors and Gentiles do as much. Jesus asks his disciples to become “sons of your Father in Heaven; for he causes his sun to rise on bad men as well as good, and his rain to fall on honest and dishonest men alike … You must, therefore, be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:45-48). God is God; he comes to the poor not because there is more space for Him with them than with the rich; he makes room for himself in the hearts of the rich as well as the poor because he is almighty God. We should seek in God himself the reason of his preference for the poor.

     Does the option for the poor on the part of the Society imply, in the Marxist manner, the exclusion of the rich? The author does well to recall the source of our criteria for apostolic election: a truly universal love which goes where the need is greatest …But one may ask, “Must the social works of the Society exclude the rich?” Is it possible to change unjust structures by speaking only to the poor? Is it possible to give an intellectual dimension to the promotion of justice without the universities? Our way of promoting justice is aimed at the reconciliation between the rich and the poor through fraternal sharing and respect for human dignity. That reconciliation must be present at the beginning of the path, or rather, it is a path to be taken together by rich and poor living a faith that does justice, having been reconciled through Christ.

     Going where the need is greatest is indeed a principle of Ignatian apostolic spirituality. But is it the unique and fundamental one? In the Constitutions, n° 618, Saint Ignatius gives two criteria: maius Dei obsequium et bonum universale. In n° 622, he recalls that double criterion before explicating it in the paragraphs that follow with the acuity of a strategist: where the need is greatest (that is, where there is the greatest degree of indigence as well as a lack of workers; think of the birth of the JRS at the time of Fr Arrupe); where we can expect a greater harvest - the more universal the good, the more divine it is.

     The application of the principle of the universal good is amazing: places and people who would bring the good to a great number of others (the great ones of the civil world, prelates in the Church, people whose doctrine and authority are eminent); huge population (Francis Xavier chose China); more ‘primitive’ peoples (Northern and Southern America); colleges and universities (St. Peter Canisius in Germany). Saint Ignatius takes into account people’s readiness to accept our help, and defends the credibility of the Society: in a context where the enemy of Christ sows division against the Society to prevent her from bearing fruit, we should send people who can defeat calumny by their example and the teaching they provide. Saint Ignatius goes on to apply the same principle “divinus honor maior, maiusque bonum universale”) in n° 623 in order to choose among different works, and in n° 624 in order to send our members according to their aptitudes.

     When I read these pages from the Constitutions, I get the impression that the theological source for St Ignatius’ understanding of the criteria for apostolic election is rather to be found in the Principle and Foundation of the Spiritual Exercises and the Magis of the key meditations to prepare oneself for the election and the “en todo amar y servir” of the “ad amorem.” The double principle of “the greater glory of God and the most universal good” can open up apostolic orientations and free the Society’s energies so that we can respond without constraints to the circumstances of places and people everywhere in the world. It is only through sharing Christ’s thirst to “glorify the Father and “to gather together in unity the scattered children of God” (Jn 11:53) that the Society can be at the service of Christ and of the Church his Spouse under the Roman Pontiff. The mission of the Society is to serve the mission of Jesus. The mission of Jesus is to “save the world” (Jn 12, 47). The ultimate theological origin of the criteria of apostolic election in the Society of Jesus is to be found in the heart of Christ pierced by the overflow of his love for the Heavenly Father and for his children scattered all over the world.

     Before the text quoted by the author, paragraph n° 8 of the 2nd Decree proposes a long quotation of Saint Ignatius’s letter to the Community of Padua in 1547, “The poor are so important in God’s eyes… befriending the poor makes us friends of the Eternal King”. The text leads us towards the call of the Eternal King and the contemplation of the life of the Eternal King in the Spiritual Exercises. That is where we must seek the theological origin of the option for the poor and the love of spiritual and real poverty. The words quoted above remind us of the testimony of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. We all know that Saint Ignatius and his companions lived in the homes of the poor when they journeyed, and took care of the sick and the poor in the places where they worked. Even the theologians invited to the Council of Trent found time for that. One only needs to look at the map of the works founded by Saint Ignatius in Rome during the fifteen years spent at the head of the newly established Society to realise that he had the same love and dedication to the service of the poor as the founders of religious institutions founded specifically with that aim. Ignatius did not, however, content himself with that. In that same period, he founded colleges, he sent members of the Society to help nobles and slaves, ecclesiastical prelates or princes in their kingdoms. All that points to the scope of the Society’s vocation and mission: “serving Christ and the Church under the Roman Pontiff.” The Vision of La Storta confirms that call to be at the service of the mission of Christ under his standard, the Cross. That same love of Christ for the Father and for men drives us: the glory of the Father and salvation for all humanity. That is why Saint Ignatius chose the greater glory of God and the most universal good as criteria for apostolic discernment. The option for the poor falls within the purview of that double criterion. The author is right to entitle his article “A mission for the body of the Society” (my emphasis).


The rich, the poor and the honour of God


     I will now try to understand the affirmation claimed by R. Jaramillo to be completely wrong and completely against the message of Jesus in the gospels.

     We have seen that the double criterion for apostolic discernment in the Constitutions is divinus honor maior, maiusque bonum universale. I will try to understand the affirmation of Father Kolvenbach and the 34th General Congregation in the light of the Principle and Foundation and the biblical theme of the honour of God, creation being precisely a manifestation of the Glory of God. In the perspective of the Spiritual Exercises appears a triangle of relationships: Man –other things– God. Man is created to praise, revere and serve God… other things are created to help man… This ordering of the poles of the relationship has already been declared by Saint Paul: Omnia vestra sunt, vos autem Christi, Christus Dei (1 Cor 3: 21-22)

     Behind the Principle and Foundation, there is an entire theology of creation which is inspired by the first pages of the Bible and the psalms on creation. The end of creation is in God’s plan. The presence of the poor who do not have access to other created things –quite apart from the causes of poverty– is certainly a breach in the divine work of creation, in his plan. God has given the earth to the sons of man (Ps 115:16). He is present and at work in all creatures (Sp. Ex. 234-236 Ad amorem). How does he view the presence of the poor? In the preludes to the contemplation of the mystery of the Incarnation, Saint Ignatius suggests that we read, so to speak, “God’s sentiments and his reaction” at the sight of a humanity that is going towards its destruction. Likewise, in making the same contemplation, we can read the ‘sentiments of God and his reaction’ at the sight of the poor on earth. Seeing that all human beings would go to hell, he decided, from Eternity, that the Son should become man in order to save them. Why did the Son choose to be poor? Saint Paul gave us the answer: “for your sake, to make you rich out of his poverty” (2 Cor 8:9). The epistle to the Hebrews proposes another answer: “he should become completely like his brothers” (Heb 2, 14-17). God did not create death (Wis 1:13). It was sin that introduced death (cf. Rom. 5, 12-15). The eternal Son was made mortal in order to give eternal life. God did not create poverty. The sin of injustice produced poverty. If God did not create poverty, what does the presence of the poor represent in his creation if not a failure? Thus, it is his honour that is at stake as in the case of death. The famous words of Saint Irenaeus: Gloria Dei homo vivens are here made clear. Saint Paul affirms that all “have sinned and forfeited God’s glory, and... are justified through the free gift of his grace, by being redeemed in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3: 23-24). The Son of God brought the solution to both death and poverty. He was made poor to make you rich out of his poverty. We need the wisdom of the Gospel to understand the meaning of “rich” and “poverty” in this Pauline text. Who can be rich before God? All need to “be rich in the sight of God” (Lk 12:21) so as to escape the fate of the foolish rich man.

     The book of Exodus shows us how the people of God experience God, and that experience becomes the source and foundation of their faith, their hope and their charity: God is faithful to his Alliance with Abraham, God is merciful, God is almighty. Chapter 3 tells us of the call of Moses through a dialogue that emphasizes those three aspects:


I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham

I have seen the miserable state of my people in Egypt.

I have heard their appeal to be free of their slave- drivers;

Yes, I am well aware of their sufferings,

I mean to deliver them out of the hands of the Egyptians …

So come, I will send you to Pharaoh

To bring the sons of Israel, my people out of Egypt

But Moses said to God,

“Who am I to go to Pharaoh, and bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt?”

“But I shall be with you” was the answer,” And this is the sign by which you shall know that it is I who have sent you..

After you have led the people out of Egypt, you are to offer worship to God upon this mountain”.


     It is by his faithfulness and his mercy that God “came down” to deliver the people of the sons of Abraham through his might. The sign he gave to Moses so that he might be assured that it was He who sent him was the success of the liberation that would lead the people to adore God on the same mountain from which God had sent Moses. God’s intervention at the Red Sea, and later in the desert is still described as a manifestation of God’s glory. After the crossing of the Red Sea, “the people venerated God; they put their faith in Yahweh and Moses, his servant.” (Ex 14:31).

     When God threatened to exterminate the people after the episode of the golden calf (Ex 32), or after the revolt following the exploration of the promised land (Num 14: 1-25), Moses advanced the honour of God as an argument to appease God. And God heard him.

     The book of Ezekiel repeatedly gives us the declaration of God’s motives for saving his exiled people:


I sentenced them as their conduct and actions deserved. And now they have profaned my holy name among the nations where they have gone, so that people say of them ‘These are the people of Yahweh; they have been exiled from his land.’ But I have been concerned about my holy name, which the house of Israel has profaned among the nations where they have gone…I am not doing this for your sake, House of Israel, but for the sake of my holy name… I mean to display the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations

…And the nations will learn that I am Yahweh.” (36: 19-33).


     Note that the liberation from Egypt led the people to believe in God; the liberation from Exile will lead the nations to acknowledge God. God is always greater.

     Some may object: but then does God always acts for his glory and not for the poor? Are not the poor exploited as instruments by God? To be sure, God cannot act but for his glory. He saves us by making us share in his glory. This is the reason for creation as it is of redemption. The poor are only exploited by those who abuse their misery in order to get power, or as a means to advance themselves, to acquire money or the glory of saving the poor. God manifests his glory to the poor in order to make them share in his glory, the glory that he granted them through creation. The poor are a visible proof of a failure in the work of creation just as the exile of the people of God is visible proof of a failure of the alliance with God. In the Bible, creation is also an alliance with God, renewed after the Deluge. It is always the honour of God that is at stake.

     God’s design in granting his people a land is to ensure that they have a life worthy of the people of God. There should be no poor people. The land was distributed in such a way that all might live in dignity (Ex 33-36). The Law is given to ensure equity. Nevertheless, chapter 15 of Deuteronomy shows us the gap between design and reality:


You must remit whatever claim you have on your brother. Let there be no poor among you then…Is there a poor man among you, one of your brothers?…Do not harden your heart…There will never cease to be poor in the land. I command you therefore: Always be open-handed with your brother, and with anyone in your country who is in need and poor” (Deut. 15: 4.7.11)


     The prophets show us the origin of poverty: greed and injustice. Disobedience to God gives rise to oppression, which means that the poor will never disappear in this land. After the exile, the prophets keep repeating the same accusation. This shows more clearly the link between the rich and the poor, between poverty and the sin of injustice. One cannot free the poor without committing oneself to reconciliation between the rich and the poor so that they unite in the fight against social injustice; on the other hand, one cannot fight injustice without committing oneself to the struggle of Christ who accomplished his Exodus for remission of sins (Lk 24: 46-48). It is the final realisation of Isaiah’s prophecy that Jesus read in Nazareth: “to preach the good news to the poor (…) to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord”. High from the cross Jesus proclaimed the acceptable year by praying: “Father, forgive them” (Lk. 23:34). His disciples are sent to bear witness to his death and resurrection and proclaim repentance to all nations so that their sins may be forgiven (cf. Lk. 24, 47-48). The rich and the poor have the same need to be freed from sin. Marx’s illusion, which communist societies illustrated and continue to illustrate, is to ignore the existence of sin. All human structures are fragile because of the sin that reigns in the heart of human beings, whatever the socio-political regime. Corruption is a chronic ill inherent in every socio-political regime in the world today, in first world countries as in third-world countries.

     That is why the Society’s mission of serving the mission of Christ must concern all dimensions. We carry out the “social apostolate,” not “social action”; our promotion of justice is a dimension of the service of faith in order to proclaim the good news of salvation in Christ which embraces all dimensions of the human being. Our ministry is that of Christ and of the apostles, a ministry of reconciliation (cf. 2 Cor. 5: 18-20). We are driven by the same love which overflows from the heart of Jesus and consumes him on the cross: the glory of the Father and the salvation of the world. For all our apostolic choices, we have a single criterion with two inseparable faces: the greater glory of God and the most universal good, divinus honor maior, maiusque bonum universale. Our path is that of Christ carrying his cross who admitted Saint Ignatius to his service. Saint Ignatius does not hesitate to remind those who want to join the Society of this sine qua non; to have the desire, or at least the desire of the desire of “putting on the same vestment and the same livery as the Lord” (Const. 101). That must always be the sign of authenticity of the life and the action of the Society as well as of each Jesuit. If there is a renewal to be always made at all levels in the Society it is indeed the effective love of that third degree of humility.


Rome, on the feast of the Annunciation 2007


Original French

Translation by Christian Uwe


Joseph Nguyn Công Đoan SJ

Curia Generalizia

C.P. 6139

00195 Roma-Pratiitaly


1) “Para redimirnos de nuestros pecados” (In Spanish).

2) This happens in the Spanish (original) and the French versions; the Italian and English versions follow the Bible.

3) All Biblical references in both the French original and English translation are taken from the Jerusalem Bible [Editor’s note].

4) Luke 18. 23-25.

5) Mt 19. 16-30; the French version of v.26 is more faithful to the Greek; the English version adds the words at them.

6) Mk 10. 17-31.