Aug. 16, 2016

Can the rich make heaven?

Emulating Stephen, the rich saint of Hungary

The gospel of today was a shot in the arm of rich people. Jesus says, "I tell you solemnly, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Yes, I tell you again, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matt.19:23). The disciples were astonished by that, so would anyone who heared such warning. And the question that followed that injunction was, "Who then can be saved?" Does it mean that being rich is a crime, or are all rich men condemned to hell? Christ's reply was that for human beings it is impossible, but all things are possible for God. That was not a straight answer though. Mark the words he used,  "How hard...", not "How impossible for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven". The last part of that discourse seemed to answer the question when Christ said, "And everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life" (Matt.19:29).

Saint Stephen of Hungary understood that well. He knew that all things are possible with God. He knew that richness consisted in following Christ with his possession. He was born of a rich family, son of a Hungarian chief. He was baptized with his father. He married the daughter of the Emperor Saint Henry 11 and later became the first King of Hungary. Rather than get blown off by his wealth and fame, Stephen decided to channel his wealth into service for God and the Church. He requested for support to christianize Hungary. He used his influence and wealth to form hospices and monasteries in Rome, Constantinople, Ravenna and Jerusalem. He devoted his wealth to the course of making heaven. And he made it.

The statement, "How hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven", often confuses. It looks like an outright condemnation of earthly wealth or human comfort. That is not totally correct even though earthly wealth can be a distraction if not properly managed. The biblical rich fool is an example.

Following Christ demands self-detachment from possessions. Peter said to him, "We have given up everything and followed you", that's the idea. These are two different things; giving up everything and following Christ. Giving up everything includes not only worldly goods but the desires of the heart. According to Saint Peter Damian, "Those who remain attached, even just to their own life, have not given up everything. Moreover, it is no good leaving everything behind except one's self, for there is no burden heavier than our ego". The human ego therefore, becomes a wealth not visible to the eyes, but one that can remain attached irrespective of one's material possessions.

Saint Stephen of Hungary sets an example for us on how to both give up and to follow. Always recognize that all wealth comes from God. Use what you have to serve him and serve humanity. Don't be a rich man to poor brothers and sisters. Don't be a rich man to a poor friend. Don't be a rich man who is blind to the poverty of his environment simply because you have locked yourself up in the prison of your wealth. That's when wealth becomes a barrier to following Jesus. If Kings and Emperors like Stephen of Hungary can make heaven irrespective of their wealth, you can also make heaven. "For I was hungry and you gave me to eat..."