Should the Church sell all its riches for the poor?


In her book, How Catholic Art Saved the Faith, Elizabeth Lev articulates that Catholicism expresses its foundation as the true church of Christ in that it showcases the formula of: the true, the good, and the beautiful. That is, people can comprehend that the Church is the one true church Jesus established in that she emits “the true” in the Magisterium, “the good” in the saints, and “the beautiful” in the Sacraments. What also flows from “the beautiful” is the sacredness in which the church is dressed to the delight of the human eye that speaks to the heart with reverence and awe. Therefore, the sprawling architecture within the immense cathedrals that are full of vibrant artwork, gold, and marble statues emit an aura that necessarily communicate a Divine presence for all to see.

However, in the formula of “the true, the good, and the beautiful” there exists a common protest in displaying “the beautiful” in the church. Many insist that the church should refrain from building these elaborate, massive cathedrals, sell all its riches and give what’s left to the poor much like Jesus instructed the rich man to do in Matthew 19: 21-22. However, this objection misses the mark when we zoom in on what “riches” Jesus is alluding to.

In Matthew 19, Jesus is talking about earthly riches in which he earlier suggests amounts to mere rubbish. “Lay not up to yourselves treasures on earth where the rust and moth consume, and where thieves break through and steal” (Matthew 6: 19).

The treasures within the church cannot be analogously linked to the mere earthly junk that the rich man had. Rather, the treasures in the church go well beyond the material realm. Let’s break this down so we can comprehend how this works.

First, we need to understand what the Church is in its essence. St. Paul clearly expressed that the Church is the household of God (1 Timothy 3:15) and that Jesus’s body is, in fact, mystically the Church itself (see Colossians 1:18, 1:24, Ephesians 1: 22-23, Romans 12:5).

If Jesus’s body is the Church, we have to ask how did the righteous in Scripture treat Jesus’s body? They treated his body with the utmost respect always adorning him with the riches his body deserves. We see that the magi presented the Christ child with the finest gifts of frankincense, gold, myrrh. A sinful woman washed Jesus’ feet and repeatedly kissed and rubbed perfume all over his feet as a way to show reverence for him (see Luke 7: 36-50). After his death, Jesus’s body was covered with the best spices. And most importantly, for our analysis, there is the scene where Jesus’s body was lavishly covered with expensive perfume. This passage will reveal the answer to the “sell the riches” objection.

images bethany

And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he was reclining at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head. There were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment wasted like that? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” And they scolded her. But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” (Mark 14: 3-9).

Notice in this scene many gave the same complaint we here today – this money can be used on the poor. What is significant is Jesus rebukes this statement and insists that what the woman was doing by anointing his body with an expensive object is a noble act. The fact that Jesus admonishes this common objection and indicates that the money is better spent on him, his body, thus his church than spent directly on the poor acts like a boomerang to the “sell the riches” concept. What is also curious is that the very next verse reveals the problematic nature of the “sell the riches” proposition.

“Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them” (Mark 14:10).

Therefore, if you’re one of those who insist that the Church sell off its riches, then you’ve sadly aligned yourself to Judas – the great betrayer of Jesus and His Church. After all, Mark lets us know that it was this incident that broke the straw for Judas. Jesus’s acceptance of money wasted on his body was the cause of Judas to want to hand Jesus over to be persecuted. In an ironic twist of fate, Judas ended up receiving a nice sum of money for his betrayal of Jesus (see Mt. 26:15).

roma san pablo vaticano

As Peter Kreeft writes, “Let us take the scene from Mark 14 and now imagine another scene. It’s 1500 years later. Imagine a brilliant artist commissioned by the Pope to design the central church in all of Christendom for the rest of time. Imagine half the world’s gold wasted on this church when half the world is in poverty. You see? It’s the same story. And we continue to be tempted to side with Judas instead of Jesus.”

The distinction between Jesus’s conversation to the rich man in Matthew 19 and his reply to Judas in Mark 14 is rather simple to grasp. In Matthew 19, Jesus is talking about earthly riches which in the end doesn’t amount to much. However, in Mark 14 he is referring to himself which amounts to heavenly riches. As is always the case, failure to see distinctions will result in confusion of the faith.

There is a more pressing answer to what Jesus is saying in Mark 14: 8-9 that Lev alludes to in her book. That is, Jesus is asserting that “the beautiful” of his body, thus the Church, will draw all people to him even after his burial. Yes, poor people need food, drink, and shelter, but they’ll eventually need something greater – to be allured into the sacredness of the Church. And the sacredness of the Church is most specifically seen in the Eucharist. Jesus plainly said not to worry about earthly food and earthly things, but rather to fixate on heavenly food (see 6:27). And this “heavenly food” he is referring to is his actual body in the Eucharist (see John 6: 35, 51, 53-56).

Moreover, there is a dramatic link between Jesus’s body and the Church. St. Paul’s theology highlights that what makes the Church linked to Christ’s body is that the Church contains within in it the Eucharist – the actual body of Christ (see 1 Cor. 10) In a similar vein, what makes my kids linked to me is that they contain in them my genetic makeup. Therefore, the Church is the bonding agent of Jesus and his body much like my DNA is the glue that connects me and my kids.

brown building interior

So, if you really want to help a poor person point them to the Eucharist in a beautiful church. The main way they can comprehend that the Eucharist is the Body of Christ is if they see that Christ’s body in a church is donned with immense riches of gold and beautiful artwork much like the expensive perfume the woman poured over Jesus (see here).

In fact, if the Church didn’t have sacred and expensive artwork in it, she would not communicate the divine presence of Christ, but merely suggest another bland earthly message. As Father Ripperger notes, “If we use objects that do not fit the majesty and the exalted nature of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we can actually detract from the extrinsic value.” Many Catholic thinkers have articulated that a lack of beauty displayed in the Church has deteriorated one’s view of the transcendent, thus fogging up the incalculable value of the mystical body.

What’s more, if we build our churches simplistic and cheaply, we essentially tell God this is how we feel about him. Imagine a father receives home-made thank you cards from his kids. If one child doesn’t put much time or money in the construction of the card. If he dresses the card in an ordinary manner, the child reveals he thinks his father is nothing special and deserves the same mundane thank you like everyone else. However, if another child puts a great deal of thought, energy, time, talent, and money in fashioning an elaborate thank you card for his father, he is showcasing how much love and loyalty he has for his father. Here, he is demonstrating in a concrete way that is father is the best and deserves the finest. It’s the same concept when we erect our churches for God.

In this sense, the human effort in art expresses itself as a thank you and a way human work can match the beauty of God’s artistic work in creation. As Peter Kwasniewski writes, “The works of God are beautiful, useful, and enduring. The goal for man is to make his own works [in art] similarly worthy.”

Another important pivot is that the Catholic Church does not regard her treasures of art as hidden wealth to be hoarded. Rather, she sees them as a sacred trust that she is to preserve in order that all people can enjoy the beauty of it much like Jesus alluded to in Mark 14. Notice these Gothic cathedrals don’t charge an arm and a leg for people to come into them as modern museums do. The Vatican opens up her precious art on display for all to enjoy. The Church doesn’t view her sacred art as a mere marketable commodity to be sold to the highest bidder so only the wealthiest can enjoy. Failure to see this distinction simply convolutes the earthly goods with the heavenly goods. The whole purpose is to take away this earthly concept that art is just simply an economic commodity to buy and sell for enjoyment. It is not. The sacred art in the Church, the mystical body of Christ, is an expression of the soul rising up to praise God and to harness all the human talent that God has given in artistry. In many ways, the Church helps us see that Catholic art, cultural, and intellectual achievements stand out in its splendor. This is what we mean in referring to the formula of “the true, the good, and the beautiful.”

While the poor continue to receive material needs from the Church through various ministries (Little Sisters of the Poor, Misericordia, Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Charities USA, etc.), these organizations ultimately need to end up pointing the person to the very thing they crave the most – the Eucharist (see here).

If the Church sold all its treasures it would cease to be in the position to serve the people who need the most help. If the treasures were gone, the people would no longer be drawn to the mystical body that Paul talks about. As Catholics, we don’t belong to an organization that simply funds humanitarian projects (as noble as that is). We belong to a heavenly body that worships beyond the earthly sphere and portrays this most notably in the Divine Liturgy of the Mass in a beautiful church. As Cardinal Sarah reminds us, “The liturgy is a moment when God, out of love, desires to be in profound union with men.”

Recently, there was controversy in Knoxville while the immense expense of the  Sacred Heart  Cathedral was being built as homeless people walked the streets. Little do people know that this cathedral that houses the Divine Body of Christ and radiates a sacred atmosphere is far better for the homeless than food and shelter. As important as they are, food and shelter only help one’s body. However, the Sacraments in Church up the ante in helping one’s soul. In view of the human person’s most pressing need, the body lasts on average 79 years while the soul last forever. While the needs of the body are substantial, the greater task of the Church is to serve the people’s eternal soul.

When we look at the church – bring on the grandeur, the beauty that is communicated by the architecture, the art, and the sacred atmosphere. This is what Jesus wanted and deep inside, this is what we all crave.

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