By Br Peter Carroll FMS
President, Catholic Religious Australia
In Biblical times the Hebrew people saw illness or material disadvantage as an indicator of sinfulness or personal error. Such conditions were interpreted as divine punishment. Consequently, the mentally ill or disabled were viewed suspiciously, treated as deficient and dangerous, and often ostracised. There are multiple episodes in scripture that illustrate this belief and pattern of behaviour.
Of course, this was never the approach that Jesus took to such people. Repeatedly we see him associating with the ill, impaired and outcast; and more than that, establishing personal relationships with them, healing them, calling them into the community and inviting them into life.
However, vestiges of the former persist to this day. One version of Christianity finds expression in what’s called ‘the Prosperity Gospel’ which teaches that God rewards faith with wealth and good health. Stephen Hunt explains it this way: “In the forefront is the doctrine of the assurance of “divine” physical health and prosperity through faith. In short, this means that “health and wealth” are the automatic divine right of all Bible-believing Christians and may be procreated by faith as part of the package of salvation, since the Atonement of Christ includes not just the removal of sin, but also the removal of sickness and poverty”.
While I don’t wish to denigrate anyone’s religious beliefs, such a credo is difficult for me to accept. Surely, it’s the antithesis of the Gospel message of Jesus? Where does suffering fit? How do we make sense of Jesus’ invitation to personal self-denial? Does such an approach align with our lived experience? To take the Prosperity Gospel to its logical conclusion is to take us back to the old Hebrew attitude: distress and suffering are punishments of God.
We know that religions can become distorted and that religious beliefs can be misinterpreted, deliberately or otherwise. Religions can be manipulated so that they appear to support ideologies or attitudes far removed from the original intent of their Founders. Margaret Thatcher famously claimed that the Parable of the Good Samaritan was Jesus’ endorsement of the benefits of capitalism. She assumed that the reason the Samaritan could assist the injured man was because he had worked hard, saved his money and had excess to provide food and accommodation.
Christian faith is not meant to lead us to self-preoccupation, or to insulate us from reality in a religious bubble. It’s not meant to be a justification for actions that advantage one group over another. Neither is it akin to a mathematical equation that gives us exact answers to every life question. Christian faith is a gift freely offered, a mystery to ponder and a love to express in our lives. Simple in some ways, it is also undeniably challenging – as expressed by Pope Francis in a Christmas message to the Roman Curia some years ago:
A faith that does not trouble us is a troubled faith.
A faith that does not make us grow is a faith that needs to grow.
A faith that does not raise questions is a faith that has to be questioned.
A faith that does not rouse us is a faith that needs to be roused.
A faith that does not shake us is a faith that needs to be shaken.
A faith which is only intellectual or lukewarm is only a notion of faith. It can become real once it touches our heart, our soul, our spirit and our whole being. Once it allows God to be born and reborn in the manger of our heart. Once we let the star of Bethlehem guide us to the place where the Son of God lies, not among Kings and riches, but among the poor and humble.
As Pope Francis suggests, our Christian Faith is meant to disturb us and stir us to action. To be faithful to our tradition we cannot be complacent and comfortable or settle for personal piety and religious isolation. We need to relate, engage and bring our faith perspective to the issues and events of the day. We must witness to, and live our faith – in its entirety. As St Francis said, “preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words”. How we do that is the work of our daily discernment.