Sunday, 16 September 2012
Harvest Festival, 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Shaftesbury
Today we're keeping our harvest festival, and every year I've taken a different theme for our harvest festival. Primary, obviously, is our focus on giving thanks to God for the good things He gives us, as we see them manifested in the good things of the harvest. And this includes our need to give thanks to God when things are good, as well as when the harvest has been less good - as many of our farmers have sadly experienced this summer.
This year, however, I wish to focus on a more particular thing, namely, our need to give to others from the good things that we have received, including the good things of the harvest. Its traditional to have a collection for those in need at our harvest festivals, and this year we have three closely related collections: the dry goods you've donated will go to the the Gillingham Food Bank, and this week the money donated in exchange for the fresh goods you take away will go to CAFOD, and next week my 17 mile sponsored run from Wardour Chapel to Salisbury Cathedral will raise money for our parish fund for the feeding station in the Sudanese refugee camp.
But the question I wish to address is WHY should we give at all? Of course, you might think that's a question with a simple answer: Jesus tells us to love our neighbour, especially when he's in need.
However, there is a complaint that often get expressed something like this: why should I give, it's MY money! I worked to have it. I only have it because I've saved for it. And so forth. And, if we're honest, most of us can have something of that attitude within us.
So, the point I wish to raise today is about what ownership means in general, according to what our Catholic Faith teaches us. Because it’s only because we think we OWN things that we think we have a right to keep them and not give them away.
The harvest time is a particularly good time to think about ownership because it's a very easy time to cast our minds back to the creation itself. What our Faith teaches us is that the world did not make itself, and humans did not make themselves - the world was and is a work of the Creator. And the good things of this world come from Him. And He gave the good things of this world to humanity for our use, as we might recall especially at harvest time: "behold I have given you every seed-bearing thing for your food..."(Gen1:29).
The more specific point I want to make, however, and while it is a little technical it's not too complicated, the point I want to make is about ownership. What does I means to 'own' something? Marxism teaches that all ownership is theft. Whereas Adam Smith teaches that the free capitalist market and unrestricted right to private ownership is the only way to wealth creation. Our Catholic Faith teaches us something else, something that is both more ancient and more new.
Our Catholic Faith teaches us that there is truly such a thing as a right to private ownership. It's also teaches, however, that this right is not absolute, and this right is in fact only to be understood in the light of the goal that private ownership seeks to advance. That goal is not the private flourishing of an individual but rather the COMMON good of humanity. And, in this regard, our teaching about the right to private ownership only makes sense if understood within the primary teaching that the goods of creation are destined for the 'Common Good' of all humanity (Catechism 2402-2404) The background question might be put like this: how are the goods of creation to be cared for, to be used, to be developed? By being entrusted to the care of individuals, entrusted to them in what we call 'private ownership'. What this means is that all private ownership needs to look beyond just itself, and our generosity to those in need is not just an act of generosity on our part but is actually a basic work of JUSTICE giving to others what is rightfully theirs.
Many centuries ago the greatest theologian in the history of the Church, St Thomas Aquinas, expressed this when he spoke of how in situations of extreme need the goods of rich belong to the poor by right, because need has put those goods in common. "In cases of need all things are common property... for need has made it common"(Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II q66 a7). This isn't a 19th century Marxist view but the ancient Catholic one.
So, to conclude by returning to that initial question: why should I give, it's MINE anyway? Well, actually, in our Catholic understanding it's only 'yours' in a limited sense to begin with. The goods of creation, even those we have worked hard for ourselves, are all ordered to ALL of humanity, and so our giving on a day like today is a basic work of justice that we owe to others.
So, today, let us give thanks to God for the good things we enjoy, but let us also remember to look at them free from selfishness. "The Lord’s is the earth and everything in it"(Ps 23:1), we only own it in provisional sense, entrusted to our care.