Lutheran Bishop, Germany
“The poor are the treasure of the Church” - the issue we are speaking about on this panel today by the view of different religions in the world is a religious sentence. It is no sentence created by reason, no sentence dictated by common sense, no sentence that arises from general experience, no sentence you can finally say about: quod erat demonstrandum. Again: “The poor are the treasure of the Church” is a religious sentence. It has no evidence in everyday’ s life, unless you meet somebody who makes you feel: this sentence is true. It is true because you meet somebody who acts according to this sentence. It is a surprising sentence. It is a sentence of love.
One of our German poets of the 20th century, Ricarda Huch, once said: “The Bible includes many stories that happen each day anew.” The story of Adam and Eve and the serpent happens again and again, so does the story of Cain and Abel, so is the story of building the tower of Babel. But not only the Old Testament tells these stories but the New Testament as well. Think of the parables of the lost son or the good Samaritan. The Bible is full of these surprising stories and surprising sentences. I suppose all of you will agree: the more you read in the Bible the more you will discover surprising and astonishing stories and sentences like these I just mentioned.
If such a sentence does not come simply from experience, but from religion and therefore from love, it will be necessarily no abstract, but a concrete sentence. It is faith that formulates these non - evident sentences which come from love and aim for love. The Bible is a picture book of this love. When you hear a sentence like this you look into the very heart of the Bible, even more: into the heart of God. And there you see the face of Jesus Christ. It is the Gospel that helps you to understand this sentence in the light of God’s love to each one of us.
In my Lutheran tradition this aims at the heart of justification. It is God who turns us upside down, who loves those who are not worthy to be loved. The reason he does it - is love, simply love. He treats us as if we were not those we look at in the mirror. He treats us as if we were Zacchaeus - as if we were lovable. When we were children we liked to play a game known in many cultures in one or the other way, and this game was called: “I see something you don’t see and that is …”God has a weakness for the unworthy people.
As followers or successors of Christ we are training this way of glancing at people and treating them accordingly. What we are doing to them we are doing to Jesus Christ himself according to the Gospel of St. Matthew, Chapter 25, where it says in the parable of the last judgement: “When I was hungry, you gave me food; when thirsty, you gave me drink; when I was a stranger, you took me in your home; when naked, you clothed me; when I was ill, you came to my help; when in prison, you visited me.” And the common question of those to his right and those to his left was: “Lord, when was it …?” - And his answer to those to his right: “Anything you did to one of my brothers here, however insignificant, you did for me.” And his answer to those to his left: “Anything you failed to do for one of these, however insignificant, you failed to do for me.” There is a holy seriousness about this parable. Whether we understand this message or not will decide about eternal life or eternal punishment.
It is HIM, JESUS CHRIST, it is GOD HIMSELF, who is speaking these words of the boundless, infinite value of the poor. Does that mean we are in reality the poor who are aimed at by this sentence: “The poor are the treasure of the Church“? Maybe - or maybe not. The Gospel says that God loves the poor; in his eyes they are a treasure who depend on his way of loving them. And by looking at them like this they become the treasure he wants them to be. And if they are a treasure in his eyes - why not at the same time in the existence and the essence of Church?! What prevents us from that?
There is a prayer by the French Abbé Pierre who cared about the clochards in Paris for many, many years:
“Father, give bread to all those who are hungry, and make hungry all those who have bread.”
The question is: Do we know “hunger“? Do we know the hunger for help? On either side. Do we know that we depend on God’ s help? Then we will discover not only the others’ helplessness, but also our own. This creates a new form of solidarity, and the material hunger of the poor will be a spiritual challenge for you, say for us, following our LORD on the path of charity.
Walking together with the poor on the path of charity the LORD himself will walk with us. And on this way we will not only remark their poverty, but also their richness. Without this new look at them the sentence “The poor are the treasure of the Church” will be a scandal, at first sight, on closer inspection we will discover, it is a scandal of grace. We all are living from this “scandal of grace”. The disciples of Jesus were people like us - living with the scandalous grace of a God who loves so deeply that he will risk anything for His world and His people. That is the reason why the world - how much it tries to appear godless - cannot get rid of God, thanks to God.
It is not fear that makes us walk together with the poor on the way of charity, it is gratitude. On Sunday at home in Germany we had our thanksgiving service in all churches. The sermon was about St. Paul’ s second letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 9, verse 6: “Remember, sow sparingly, and you will reap sparingly; sow bountifully, and you will reap bountifully.” the German translation of the second part says: Sow in blessing, and you will reap in blessing. The first part is a country saying, the second part is a saying in the kingdom of God. Remember: thankfulness is a better advisor than pressure and force.
The prophet Isaiah says (Chapter 58, verse 7): “Is it not sharing your food with the hungry, taking the homeless poor into your house, clothing the naked when you meet them? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, your righteousness will be your vanguard, and the glory of the LORD will be your rearguard … if you give of your own food to the hungry and satisfy the need of the wretched, then light will rise for you out of darkness.”
In a German translation it says: “When you let find the hungry your heart…” That’ s it, that is what the poor need on the path of charity. Not only social politics, but our heart.
When I was a young man studying theology and sociology at two German universities, coming from a poor family myself I have always been seeking for the mixture of social engagement and spiritual depth. The vertical line and the horizontal line belong together. Together they form the sign of the cross; God’ s sign of YES to all people. In the German Protestant Church I am the Bishop for the spiritual communities. I am very thankful for what I have learned from the friends of Sant’ Egidio - their deep friendship to the poor. They live what they believe. There is no attitude of generous superiority, but face - to - face - friendship. This it what they need - and this is what we need. I trust deeply in this spiritual ecumenical movement that will help Christianity to find back to its roots, independent of our denominational origins.
On the path of charity we will find what we need most in today’s living together, and that is reconciliation. God bless our common path. We will learn from another not only as Christian Churches, but also as religions, and the lecture we will learn will be a contribution for peace and reconciliation. God bless all of you.