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The central problem of the century– and of our lives

This weekend I saw Witness, the powerful work by Whittaker Chambers, sitting on the shelf, and decided that it was high time to re-read it. I hadn’t finished the foreword when this passage triggered a series of thoughts:

Economics is not the central problem of this century. It is a relative problem which can be solved in relative ways. Faith is the central problem of this age.

In the Church today there is a great deal of emphasis on our obligation to help those in need: to solve economic problems. That is right and just; in the New Testament (and the Old, for that matter), there can be no mistaking the imperative to help the poor, to feed the hungry, to care for widow and orphans— yes, and to welcome strangers.

Still these are all relative problems. There are countless ways to help those in need. Different situations call for different solutions, and there are healthy debates as to the best approach to any given problem. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to poverty, and the ugly history of the past century should have taught us to fear the ideologues who offer a final solution.

Moreover poverty— which is the central problem in economics— is relative in the sense that we cannot expect to eradicate it. We can ease the suffering of the poor, but there will still, inevitably, be some people less fortunate than others. “The poor you will always have with you.” [Jn 12:8]

The Lord tells his disciples that in the final judgment, the righteous will be rewarded for feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, because “as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” [Mt 25:40] But notice how the righteous react: with puzzlement. “Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink?” [Mt: 25:37] They had done the right thing— given aid to those in need— but they had not congratulated themselves for doing so, or presumed that their almsgiving was enough to qualify them for the Kingdom. Because they recognized that their primary obligation was to the King himself.

Feeding the poor, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned: these are the works of God. We can and should help the poor: as we can, when we can, in the best way we can. Yet, to borrow the phrase and the thought from Chambers, they are relative works. They are never perfect, they are never enough. Today’s Gospel offers a different perspective: “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.” [Jn 6:29]

The central problem of the century is also the central question of our lives.  The problems of poverty— like the problems of keeping peace— will never be finally resolved in this life. But we recognize the central question: the question that allows for a simple, definitive, declarative answer. “But who do you say that I am?” [Mt 16:15]