Yet in no way can a man redeem himself,
or pay his own ransom to God;
Too high is the price to redeem one's life;
he would never have enough
to remain alive always and not see destruction.
One of our friars died recently, one of my classmates. We had a great funeral for him. Several weeks later a box of his stuff appeared in our living room: books, knickknacks, some clothing; including a tweed Irish cap that fits my head perfectly. It's one of those fine wool caps that will last a lifetime, or several. I wonder who will next pick it up.
The above quote is taken from our responsorial psalm, (49), a reflection on the futility of wealth. Saint James, in today's first reading, echoes that sentiment which he has learned from the psalms and experienced through faith in Jesus.
As old as the institution of money is our skepticism about it. There's no question: it has its purpose. We evaluate goods and services with it, and use it to facilitate exchange. It's better than pillaging strangers for basic necessities. Governments have always had a vested interest in currency, not only to promote civility but to raise taxes for public works. What would be the point of owning a car if there were no roads to drive on? Without roads we'd need no taxes, and no money; and we could go back to walking.
But some people are enchanted with money. They think it's more valuable than friends or family. Sometimes they value it more than knowledge or virtue. They set out to accumulate money, forgetting that it's only worth what people think it's worth.
Saint James reminds them, in case they have forgotten: Yet in no way can a man redeem himself, or pay his own ransom to God.
Using the metaphor of money, he reminds us that Jesus, by his sacrificial death on the cross, has paid the price of our redemption.
During the middle ages, following the collapse of the Roman Empire, as Europeans rebuilt their governments and major infrastructures, banks were founded to encourage and sustain economies. Once again, people were fascinated by money. It could be accumulated, lent out, and collected again with interest! Some clever people could become wealthy without owning vast estates or leading major armies. Many Franciscans, like their founder, were comfortable with money. They had grown up in "middle class" families, neither absurdly wealthy nor desperately poor. The friars encouraged the Church to ease its ban on lending and let capitalism develop.
But they also reminded the emerging middle class that ownership without responsibility, although legal, is basically criminal. Nothing really belongs to anyone; we're all in this together. Especially during crises, those who don't share and share alike must face the penalty of shame from their neighbors. Their control of wealth did not give them the right to withhold a helping hand when others needed it.
Throughout the centuries the Church has reminded us that the Lord knows our worth and has paid the price for each of us. No one will be judged by what he has but by what he gave away.