It may come to pass that the good Samaritan of the Gospel may find someone going down from Jerusalem to Jericho … falling back from the martyr’s conflict to the pleasures of this life and the comforts of the world … [and] may, I say, not pass by him but tend and heal him. St. Ambrose of Milan
In Till We Have Faces, C. S. Lewis’s retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, one scene vividly captures a recurring phenomenon in the Gospels. As Lewis tells it, Orual, the story’s narrator and half-sister of the beautiful Psyche, believes the people of her kingdom to have killed her sister in order to placate the jealous wrath of the goddess Ungit. Unable to stop them, she searches for Psyche after it’s too late. But rather than finding her sister dead, Orual discovers her alive, claiming the West Wind whisked her away to be wed to the god Cupid, living now in his palace and visited by him only at night, when she cannot see his face.
At first, overcome with relief, Orual plays along with the story, thinking it make-believe. Psyche offers her “honeycakes” and a “cup” of “wine,” cupping water in her hands, and Orual accepts it, praising its beauty. But she begins to worry for the well-being of her sister. Who is this “god,” and why can’t Psyche see his face? It then becomes clear that the two sisters’ perspectives differ sharply: “Wine? What wine? What are you talking about?” says Orual at one point, wishing to put aside what, despite one haunting glimpse of the divine palace, she believes to be a playful charade.
“Orual! The wine I gave you. And the cup. I gave you the cup. And where is it? Where have you hidden it?”
“Oh, have done with it, child. I’m in no mood for nonsense. There was no wine.”
“But I gave it to you. You drank it. And the fine honeycakes. You said—”
“You gave me water, cupped in your hands.”
“But you praised the wine, and the cup. You said—”
“I praised your hands. You were playing a game (you know you were) and I fell in with it.”
She gaped open mouthed, yet beautiful even then.
“So that was all,” she said slowly. “You mean you saw no cup? tasted no wine?”
I wouldn’t answer. She had heard well enough what I said.…
“Aiai!” she mourned, “so this is what he meant. You can’t see it. You can’t feel it. For you, it is not there at all….”
The “gospel to the poor” (Isaiah 61:1; Luke 4:18) is also the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God. Yet often Jesus’s own disciples did not understand what he meant until after his death and resurrection: “The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, ‘Look here!’ or ‘there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:20-21). He continues to warn them to be patient in awaiting his return: “The days will come when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. And they will say to you, ‘Look there!’ or ‘Look here!’ Do not go after them or follow them” (Luke 17:22-23).
This confusion is understandable. King David reigned over a visible kingdom, after all. God divided this kingdom due to the sins of his son Solomon, and due to the sins of Israel and Judah, the kingdoms fell and the people went into exile. In exile, the Jews developed the synagogue in order to maintain faith in the Lord and adherence to the Law with no Temple and no kingdom. After some Jews’ return from exile, they lived half a millennium in the Promised Land with a rebuilt Temple but no Davidic kingdom.
The same Lord who fulfilled his promise to return the people from exile also promised that someday a king would rule Israel—and all nations—from the throne of his father David. By the time of Christ, a movement of nationalist Zealots even rose up, first occasioned by the very census that brought the Theotokos and St. Joseph to Bethlehem. They viewed the Romans as illegitimate and Roman taxes as theft. One Judas of Galilee (referenced in Acts 5:34-39) led an ill-fated revolt. Some, before his death, believed him to be the promised Christ.
Thanks in no small part to the witness of St. John the Forerunner at his baptism, Jesus quickly gained a reputation for being that promised Christ as well. He taught the Law with wisdom and authority. Moreover, he healed the sick and exorcised demons. And he prophetically exposed the hypocrisy of the Sadducees (the rich, priestly elite), the Pharisees (the more rigorist rabbis), and the scribes (academics like me).
Yet some things didn’t add up. One of his disciples, St. Simon, was “called the Zealot” (Luke 6:15), but another, St. Matthew, was a tax collector! (Matthew 9:9) When asked whether it was “lawful to pay taxes to Caesar” (Matthew 22:17), Jesus answered, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17). Judas the Galilean would have answered with an unambiguous, “No!”
Then there was all this business about the kingdom of God or heaven. Instead of just telling people what he means, Jesus speaks in cryptic parables, saying the kingdom is like a shepherd, a coin, an unjust judge, a Samaritan, ten virgins, and many other things. He even tells his disciples that he does so precisely so that “Seeing they”—the people—“may not see” (Isaiah 6:9; Mark 8:10). In one instance, when Jesus opens the eyes of a man born blind, whom everyone believed deserved his blindness as a matter of karmic justice, he tells him, “For judgment I have come into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may be made blind” (John 9:39).
Yet Jesus begins his preaching by saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). He tells his Apostles to preach the same (Matthew 10:7), and instructs them to pray, “Thy kingdom come” (Matthew 6:10). If the long-awaited kingdom is so close … where is it? Why can’t anyone see it? If Jesus is truly the promised Christ, when does the revolution start? Even just before his ascension, some of his disciples still ask, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus evasively responds, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in his own authority. But—” (Acts 1:6-7). Well, now I’m getting ahead of myself….
How is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, of this kingdom that is neither “here” nor “there” and “not of this world” (John 18:36), yet is somehow both “within you” and “at hand,” also the “gospel to the poor”? The light of the Fathers can help us see. St. Jerome, St. Augustine, and St. Ambrose see the parable of the “good Samaritan” (Luke 10:25-37), perhaps the quintessential image of mercy for the poor, as an image of the salvation of all humanity through Jesus Christ.
The man who descended from Jerusalem to Jericho is all of us, fallen from Paradise into death and sin through the violence of the robber, the devil. Stripped naked of our proper dignity and left for dead, the Law proves impotent to save us: The priest and the Levite, afraid of violating its ceremonial rules, fail to fulfill the command to “love your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:18), passing by on the other side of the road. But the Samaritan, Christ (thought a heretic of illegitimate birth by rival rabbis), tends to our wounds with oil and wine and brings us upon his beast (his flesh, according to St. Augustine) to the inn, the Church, to recover under the care of the innkeeper, the Apostles, and await his return. Thus, we are all poor and need mercy. Hence, our most common prayer: “Lord, have mercy.”
Seeing this is essential to seeing the kingdom. The first of the Beatitudes, according to St. Matthew, is “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). St. Luke gives a shorter version: “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20), accompanied by a grave warning: “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (Luke 6:24).
Many misread these passages and fall into a false dualism, thinking wealth to be intrinsically evil and material poverty automatically good. This view fits better those ancient Gnostic heretics who taught the material world was evil. By contrast, the Fathers, building upon the Stoics, consistently reject this.
St. John Chrysostom, St. John Cassian, and St. Gregory the Theologian all affirm that only virtue is good and sin evil—all else, including wealth and poverty, are only good or evil depending on their use. St. Basil the Great likewise instructs, “Health and sickness, riches and poverty, credit and discredit … are not … naturally good, but, in so far as in any way they make life’s current flow more easily, in each case the former is to be preferred.” Clement of Alexandria taught the same and pointedly asked, “[I]f no one had anything, what room would be left among men for giving?” Pope St. Leo the Great further considers the social dimension: “wealth, after its kind and regarded as a means, is good and is of the greatest advantage to human society, when it is in the hands of the benevolent and open-handed.” And more recently, Metropolitan St. Philaret of Moscow asks in his Catechism, “Can the rich, too, be poor in spirit?” To which he answers, “Doubtless they can: if they consider that visible riches are corruptible and soon pass away, and can never compensate for the want of spiritual goods.”
We all suffer the poverty of death and sin, but we all may be “poor in spirit” through grace, humility, detachment, and mercy. That said, we shouldn’t take lightly the many warnings in the Scriptures and the Fathers about the dangers of material wealth. Material poverty, rightly “used,” reveals to us our poverty before God and our need for salvation. It can help us see the kingdom of heaven. Material wealth, though capable of alleviating some struggles of this life, can blind us to the kingdom through its comforts and, switching metaphors, choke the seeds of faith.
Given that many more of us today than in the ancient world enjoy the comforts of relative wealth, we all ought to ask with the disciples, “Who then can be saved?” (Matthew 19:25) But unlike the rich young ruler who despaired for his soul, we should also take comfort in the Lord’s response: “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (19:26). God becomes man. A Virgin gives birth. The blind see. Death is put to death. Those born once can be “born again” (John 3:3). Even we rich can be saved, if we see our true poverty before God and prudently use our resources for mercy.
In my next essay, I will continue to explore how the Gospel both fulfills and differs from the Law, teaching us to “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36), even to “Be perfect … as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).