You will doubtless have been aware of a significant puff of white smoke recently, which declared the election of a new Pope. His Holiness Pope Francis has talked about that significant moment, whilst he was sitting next to a fellow South American cardinal: “When things became a bit dangerous, he comforted me, and when the vote for me reached the two-thirds majority, a moment in which the cardinals started applauding because they had chosen a Pope, he hugged me, he kissed me and he said ‘don’t forget the poor’. “That word, the poor, lodged in me here,” Francis said, tapping his head. “It was then that I thought of St Francis. And then I thought of wars and about peace and that’s how the name came to me – a man of peace, a poor man … and how I would like a church of the poor, for the poor.”
Don’t forget the poor. The Bible is very clear about the priority that God gives to social justice – it is a theme running throughout both Old and New Testaments where there are over 2000 texts dealing with how the poor are to be treated, and included within wider society. Put simply, where there is no social justice, God is provoked into righteous anger. It is absolutely of the essence of the gospel that Christians have care for those who are excluded from participating in our society; it is not possible to be a Christian and to have no concern for social justice; it is, in sum, right at the heart of what we talk about when we Christians discuss ‘the Kingdom of God’. So I am delighted to see the new Pope making such a strong, clear and symbolic stand at the beginning of his pontificate. And yet…
When Jesus is asked what is the most important commandment to follow, he does not say ‘Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor’ – that teaching comes in the context of specific instructions to a particular young man whom Jesus loved (Mark 10). No, when Jesus is asked what is the most important commandment, he says this: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
I view one of the most dire problems that the church faces, and which vitiates all of its attempts to engage critically with the world, as salt and as yeast and as light, as being due to the evacuation of the sense of the first commandment into a comfortable affirmation of the “second, which is like it”. There is a reason why Jesus says that the first commandment comes first. The first commandment contains a distinct meaning, which cannot be disregarded. Yes, there is an intrinsic link between love of God and love of neighbour – and where there is no love of neighbour then that is a clear sign that the love of God is deficient – but I believe that Christians have become very comfortable with the idea that by doing good works for our neighbours we are doing all that we need to do in order to love God.
I believe that this is false, and is the principal reason why the church in all its forms is now so regularly trampled underfoot. There is more to the church than being just another charity, just another non-governmental organisation, just another group of people who do what seems to be right in the eyes of the world. I believe that if the church gets the first commandment right, the second will naturally follows. I am not persuaded that it happens in reverse; indeed, I suspect that the inverse is eventually self-defeating.
There is something non-negotiable and inescapable about the worship of God when it comes to actually living out a Christian life – and in writing these words I am aware of how strange it might seem that this needs to be said! The worship of God is not simply another particular hobby to be placed alongside other hobbies – some people like to play bowls, some like to sail, some like to sing strange songs in old and draughty buildings. No, in terms of a discussion about poverty there is a much more direct, internal and organic link between the right worship of God and the quest for social justice. If we in the church do not worship God correctly, then we do not discern our values correctly, and we inevitably end up engaged in something which can be called idolatry – and the Bible is very clear that the necessary consequence of idolatry is injustice. In contrast, the Bible is equally clear that where God is worshipped properly then the world and all of us within it are enabled to flourish. Christians cannot separate out the one from the other, for when we do, both commandments are broken.
I am sure that, as a Jesuit (some of the best teachers I have ever had), Pope Francis knows this in his bones. So my delight in his appointment and his pursuit of the second commandment is grounded in an assurance that the first will indeed be placed first. I had high hopes for the leadership that Pope Benedict was able to give, and those hopes were fulfilled. I have faith that my high hopes for Pope Francis will be met likewise. May God bless the work of his hands.