Thursday, May 8, 2014

The poverty of God

The poverty of God. The poverty of God? What can this possibly mean? God is the richest, the wealthiest, the most abundant and powerful of all beings, creating all, owning all, sustaining all. He is the ground of being itself, ‘in Him we live and move and have our being.’ Yet I cannot escape this mystery, the poverty of God. We know from scripture and tradition that in Christ, God ‘came down from heaven,’ that He impoverished Himself to make us rich, He that is all righteousness ‘bent the heavens and came down’ to make us sinners righteous, to take away our shame, to remove our sin from us ‘as far as east is from the west.’ Yet, this is not the poverty of God that I meet in this moment of time I call ‘my life.’ This is still infinite wealth coming to the relief of finite poverty. Yes, infinity taking finity into itself, life taking death.

No, the poverty of God, who makes everything out of nothing, who does so much with so little, He wastes nothing, lets no opportunity slip by. ‘If you have seen me,’ says Jesus, ‘you have seen the Father.’ And we do see Him, whose life was passed in this world as unknown, inglorious, matter-of-fact, without fanfare, as the lives of the rest of us. He didn’t fraternize with the rich and famous and successful, not even with the ‘wise in their own eyes.’ The only time He came to the notice of the rich and powerful was when He was hauled in front of them to be condemned. Yet it isn’t as though He were a beggar. No, a beggar does nothing but beg, for whatever reason, unemployment, physical or mental handicap. No, He never begged His bread: He gave bread. In fact, He became bread. From five loaves He feeds the world.

Yes, He is very economical. He does so much with little. And where does He get it, that little with which He does so much? ‘How many loaves do you have? Go and see,’ He says, and when we do as He asks, that which we cannot supply, He supplies. Yet He doesn’t have any more than we have. All He has is His word, as He tells us, ‘Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.’ That is the poverty of God, the same who says, ‘Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.’ He keeps very close count of us, down to our very hairs, hoarding all and losing none, just as the poor man watches what little he has, to get the most for it. That is God’s economy too.

The imprint of the poverty of God is on all things, and especially on all flesh, our flesh, where we can see it. Science, the study of what He makes, can trace out the economy with which everything is made. We see the evolution of the natural world, the immensity of space and time, just short of infinity, and our own smallness, making us feel insignificant, yet we notice the same ‘waste not want not’ design everywhere we look. As soon as we think we have discovered what something is or does or is used for, we find yet another. Studying ourselves, our physical nature, this is especially true. How many functions each of our organs and attributes has! It’s as though whoever made us had to fit so many capabilities into so few structures. His architecture in us, in all things, is poverty not surplus, yet it results in wealth.

‘The devil is in the details’ we hear said, as we plough our mental fields to turn over the soil of ideas, as we do what we’re best at, following our Maker. Our sin, though, is to deviate from His poverty, as we waste our lives trying to move from glory to glory while we litter the world with the signs of our success. Always trying to be rich, we impoverish ourselves. Always seeking ease, we discover drudgery. Always pursuing excitement, we catch up with boredom. Our fields become infertile because we overuse them, seed falling on depleted soil. No, the devil is not in the details for Him as it is for us. Why? Because He never tries to be what He is not and thus does not make what cannot be. ‘The whole world was shining with brilliant light and, unhindered, went on with its work.’ Reality does not operate at a surplus.

Neither does God. As I look back over my life, I see how this ‘divine economy’ operates. He may be a poor God, but He is not a stingy one. He has never afflicted me with any insufficiency. He gives neither too little nor too much. He is never too late but also never too early. Where I would have preferred to have a safety net or a cushion against calamity, He has relegated me to relying on His mercy, which again is sufficient. He uses my weaknesses not only to benefit me, but even to benefit others. By giving me the freedom to choose, He makes best use even of my mistakes to save me, and others. Teaching me gently but persistently, He never abandons me even when I run away from Him. He is too poor to buy back my attention and my obedience, so He waits, ready to receive me, when my poverty twins His.

The poverty of God. Yes, this is a strange kind of poverty and a very strange God. He lives among the poor of the earth, demonstrating His teaching, ‘How happy are the poor in spirit; theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Happy the gentle: they shall have the earth for their heritage.’ His poverty is not a state of having or not having, whether power or possessions, but of being. It is a nakedness that does not need to be covered by fig leaves. He may cover our nakedness with His own skin, but again, because He is so poor, that is all He has. He does this, so that we can learn how to be just as poor as He is. ‘You must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ This poverty of God, far from what we fear as poverty, is the fertile womb of worlds. All true wealth arises from it. All true wealth flows into it.

Yes, the poverty of God.

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