Sell the Vatican, Feed the Hungry?

Comedian Sarah Silverman recently proposed a solution to the problem of world hunger: Sell the Vatican and redistribute the profits.

Very funny.

Never mind that the Vatican’s latest estimated worth of $908 million pales in comparison with the $83 billion the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization says must be invested in agriculture in developing countries. Or that the annual budget of Catholic Charities USA is roughly four times the monetary value of the Vatican.

Of course, Silverman, who made her comments on HBO in October, was primarily interested in scoring laughs. All the better if she could do so while bashing a Church she and her audience consider hypocritical.

After all, in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus exhorts a rich man to sell everything he has and give the proceeds to the poor. Were the Church to take these verses literally and apply the letter of the law (see Melinda Selmys’ column on legalism above), shouldn’t it sell its artistic treasures to the Louvre? Or put St. Peter’s Basilica up for auction on Sotheby’s?

Of course, the exchange between Jesus and the Rich Man is hardly the only time wealth and poverty are addressed in Scripture. Many verses deal with this issue. In Luke 12, for example, Jesus calls on his followers to sell their possessions, give alms and store up treasure in heaven. Elsewhere in Luke, he urges those holding a lavish banquet to invite the poor, crippled, lame and blind rather than relatives or rich neighbors. And, in one cautionary parable, a rich man dines so sumptuously that a poor man covered in sores and lying by the door longs for mere crumbs falling from the rich man’s table. The poor beggar ends up in heaven while the rich man seals his own fate: separation from God for all eternity.

The message so far seems clear and simple: Wealth has only one purpose — relief of the poor. But Jesus does not always command his disciples to forsake all earthly means.

In the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 14, while Jesus is visiting a leper in Bethany, a woman pours a jar of perfume on his head. Those who witness it grumble, saying that the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor. But instead of commending them for their social conscientiousness, Jesus scolds them.

Jesus said, “Let her alone. Why do you make trouble for her? She has done a good thing for me. The poor you will always have with you, and whenever you wish you can do good to them, but you will not always have me. She has done what she could. She has anticipated anointing my body for burial. Amen, I say to you, wherever the Gospel is proclaimed to the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went off to the chief priests to hand him over to them.

As Christians we know that Christ is always with us, as he promised in Matthew 28:20 — “I am with you always, until the end of the age.” As Catholics, we know the Lord is present with us not only in his divinity but also his humanity: the Eucharist.

Thus, the woman at Bethany provides a model for the Church as we respond to goads from the Sarah Silvermans of the world. As Pope John Paul II put it in his encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, the Church “has feared no ‘extravagance’” in “devoting the best of its resources to expressing her wonder and adoration before the unsurpassable gift of the Eucharist.”

That is why Christ declared, with all the weight of an Amen, that the story of the anointing would be retold whenever and wherever the Gospel is proclaimed. It is also why Mark goes out of his way to tell readers that the visit in Bethany occurs just two days before the feast of Passover. After his anointing in Mark 14, Jesus next appears at the Last Supper, where he offers his body and blood in the Eucharistic elements of the bread and wine.

The Church teaches us that the Eucharist is the fullest expression of God’s love in the world today. It is a love of both poverty and plenty. For in the Eucharist, we encounter Christ at his humblest and most impoverished — his divine glory hidden under the appearance of bread and wine. But it is also through the Eucharist that God shares the abundance of his love with us, filling us with grace and a foretaste of future glory.

Glory amid humility, life after death, God and man in one person: Christianity is a faith full of such apparent paradoxes. Indeed, down the ages, Catholic devotions have taken a variety of forms and drawn a diversity of followers. This is why the same Church that celebrates the Franciscan call to abandon all worldly possessions can comfortably possess an architectural gem of such sensual splendor as the Vatican.

The call is to make sure that, via both sacrificial acts and priceless devotions — not either one or the other (see Mark 12:28-31) — we do all for the glory of God and the love of our neighbor.

Stephen Beale blogs