What are the treasures of the church? St. Laurence answered the question in a shocking way in the third century.
In that day seven deacons led the church in Rome, and Laurence was one of them. Valerian, the Roman Emperor, was intensifying the persecution of the church that his predecessor Decius had begun. But the Roman church remained vital, as evidenced by the report that the church was caring for 1500 orphans and widows in the city. (1)
One story that has survived from that time is of Roman authorities who heard rumors of the wealth of the church and wanted to take advantage of an opportunity. A prefect ordered Deacon Laurence to hand over the treasures of his church. Laurence interpreted the command a bit differently from what the prefect expected.
The deacon collected all the poor, sick, weak, elderly, lame, blind, destitute children, and outcasts into his house.
At the appointed time, the prefect showed up with armed guard and demanded of Laurence the treasures of the church. In response Laurence gestured toward the poor, suffering people he had collected and said, “Here they are. Take them. These are the treasures of the church.” The ending of the story varies with the tradition, some saying the Roman authorities had Laurence burned at the stake, others reporting he was beheaded. (2)
Two millennia later, many of us in the church probably think St. Laurence’s response to the prefect’s order sounds just as strange as the Roman authorities thought it was.
But then, we remember Jesus offering another similarly odd evaluation in the Sermon on the Plain: “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Lk 6:20). And perhaps we recall that the Gospels show Jesus’ preference for hanging out with the sick, demon-possessed, and peasants of Galilee, rather than the scholars and religious politicians at the Jerusalem temple. When some mentioned to Jesus the strangeness of his preferred company, he replied, in his characteristically enigmatic manner, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but only those who are sick” (Mk 2:17).
In my experience, many churches in North America seem to embrace the perspective of Rome: they tend to treasure members who have achieved wealth, influence, education, above those who are poor. After all, the church has lots of ministries and buildings to support. How could we survive without the resources of the materially prosperous? To be sure, many churches in our culture provide amazing ministries for the poor and needy, and in that action they are imitators of Christ. But such ministry often tends to be secondary to other functions that we treasure even more in the church.
In conversations about how to use the limited resources of labor, time, and money in the church, some of us quote under our breaths the words of Jesus when he observed, “The poor you will have with you always, but you will not always have me” (Mt. 26:11, where he was speaking in defense of a woman who anointed him with expensive perfume). We can find in Jesus’ explanation the common-sense approach that since the poor are always around and the problem will never be eliminated, we are justified in prioritizing a number of other things above helping the poor. At such moments we would do well to read the fuller passage Jesus was quoting from Deuteronomy: “Since you will have always have poor with you, I therefore command you: open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land’” (15:11).
Obviously, within the church we have hard decisions to make about the use of resources, which are seemingly never adequate for doing all that we would like to do. But are our priorities the same as those of Jesus in the Gospels?
Sadly, the religion journalist Barbara Ehrenreich may have hit too close to home when she wrote that many of us in the church do in fact embrace the goal of piling up earthly treasures, and some of us are guilty of “admiring the rich and despising the poor.” Concerning the church in America, she offers these tough words about how the church views wealth and poverty: “We seem to have chosen the easy path, the one that comforts the already comfortable and harangues the already hard pressed.”(3)
Apparently, St. Laurence was way ahead of most of us in the North American church today. It wasn’t simply that he understood the calling to sacrificially share resources with the poor. That he evidently did, but his conviction that the poor are the treasures of the church is moving to a deeper level in one’s attitude toward the poor. It’s not just a matter of giving to those living in poverty. His example is one of seeing the essential need for the church to treasure the poor as Jesus did. I’m not advocating for a sloppy, sentimental notion that the poor have some kind of essential nobility, much less that they are somehow lucky to be poor. Nothing could be further from the truth. The poor live in physical suffering and misery. My point is that the church cannot be mature in Christ unless it connects with the poor in solidarity. Then the church is able to receive the divine gifts that can only come through service alongside the poor. We should care about what we can do for the poor, but the deeper truth is that if we are able to identify with them, listen to them, learn from then, we will discover that living with them opens us to receiving through them divine gifts of even more value than any material thing we might offer to the poor.
Henri Nouwen elaborates on the point: “A true disciple of Jesus will always go to where people are feeling weak, broken, sick, in pain, poor, lonely, forgotten, anxious, and lost. It is often hard to go to places of weakness and rejection to offer consolation and comfort. It is possible only when we discover the presence of Jesus among the poor and weak and realize the many gifts they have to offer. Therefore, spiritual formation always includes responding from the heart to the needs of the poor in a spirit of true compassion.” (4)
One of several illustrations of this truth that Nouwen offers comes from his experience of living with poor and oppressed people in Latin America for several months. They taught him many things, including the lesson that the flip side of the poverty that we find in the Southern Hemisphere is a different kind of poverty for those in the Northern Hemisphere in terms of the way so many live in “fear, anguish, and captivity. . . . Somehow these two realities cannot be separated. Our suffering, caused by fearful hoarding and a lack of freedom, is not separated from the suffering and oppression of those who live in countries we call the ‘developing world.’ Somehow in North America we’ve nearly forgotten what leads to a life of love. We’ve almost sold out our collective hopes of dwelling in God’s house of love for secured borders, security systems, and gated communities.”(5) It took living among the poor for Nouwen to receive the gift of this profound truth, a gift that most in the North American church refuse to accept.
In the final analysis the poor are the treasures of the church because they are the Face of Christ. They profoundly reflect the incarnational reality of Imago Dei (Image of Christ). In the poor Christ comes to us in that way which does not “regard equality with God something to be grasped,” but humbling himself to become human in them, humbling to the depths of physical human vulnerability. When we serve alongside the poor in solidarity with them, we serve Christ. And Christ serves us. And there we can learn again the truth that where you heart is, there also is your treasure.
(1) “St. Laurence,” Christianity Today; and Ron Rolheiser, “The Treasures of the Church,” August 16, 1995, available at: http://ronrolheiser.com/the-treasures-of-the-church/#.XNbQbBZOnYU.
(2) Barbara Ehrenreich, “Remember the Sermon on the Mount?” Time Magazine, 31 October, 1994, 92.
(3) Henri J. M. Nouwen, with Michael J. Christensen and Rebecca J. Laird, Spiritual Formation: Following the Movements of the Spirit (HarperCollins, 2010), Introduction.
(5) Nouwen, chapter 5.