Notebook

Melanie Mcdonagh: Why did Jesus praise the poor?

A woman begs in Dublin: ‘You have to turn somewhere; you turn to God’ (PA)

You know, when Our Lord called money “that tainted thing” (Luke 16), I’m sure he was right, but not quite so sure that he took on board the inconvenience of having too little of it. At present, I am contemplating just what an insufficiency of funds means, and it’s awful.

It costs €3,000 (£2,500) a month to pay for my mother’s carers, and her life savings have just run out. In two months’ time she’ll have used up her remaining assets – shares left her by my uncle. The Irish government will kindly fund her care in a home, in return for 40 per cent of the value of her house after her death, but she hated the homes she tried last year; she likes being where she is. And I am, to put it mildly, not in a position to help.

Given the stomach-churning implications of all this, I am brooding resentfully at the implications of Christ’s observations about poverty. In Luke, he said emphatically, blessed are the poor – with no nonsense about the poor in spirit. Christ advised his followers – us – to have no care for the morrow; sufficient unto the day being the evil thereof.

I have taken Our Lord’s injunctions far too little to heart in most respects, but I did take this one on board, in the sense of a blithe disregard for the cares of tomorrow, which have now turned into the cares of today. I modelled myself on the lilies of the field, which sow not, neither do they spin; they do, however, as the man said, photosynthesise, and they have that advantage over more sentient creatures.

So, why does Christ exalt poverty? Actually, not poverty, but the poor – a different matter? I’ve been brooding over this lately. I don’t, obviously, put myself in the poor category in the sense that anyone in the developing world would understand it, or anyone here who lives on benefits. I am well paid. My insight is derived from being financially embarrassed, a very different thing: a category of middle-class angst that Christ did not identify directly, though he did help out at the wedding at Cana.

So what do those without funds have over those with them, spiritually? Why Christ’s preference for the poor? Well, one thing it does do is bolster your prayer life. When debt and debt collectors hang over you like the sides of a cliff, you jolly well pray, and mean it. You are, to all intents and purposes, stuffed, and you have to turn somewhere; you turn to God.

You do, of course, acknowledge that worse things are happening at sea, but there is a purity and simplicity to your prayers when things are going badly, which they lack when you’re not utterly dependent on God helping you out.

It’s that sense of dependence which is a good thing, and which we don’t have when things are going well. Herbert McCabe, the brilliant Dominican theologian, observed that those in danger of sinking at sea do not normally complain of distraction during prayer. Well, the same goes when you’re in deep waters of other descriptions.

The other thing about poverty, or its stupid shadow, financial embarrassment, is that it’s the death of pride. You find yourself looking for help when you’d so very much rather go without it. In the monthly cycle of being paid, and then running through the pay, I found myself at the bottom of the cycle just as I had to go to Cambridge for a funeral. So I had, not for the first time, to ask a colleague for the loan of £20.

As I’ve said, I am well paid, so in theory this was ridiculous, but needs must. She was ever so nice about it, though, and I was grateful for that tact. Dependency on other people does make you more keenly appreciative of them, which is a good thing.

You are also forced into trains of thought which are just horrid. A year ago my mother was very ill with an infection; I had her taken to hospital. The next time it happens, I will be aware that if she pulls through, it’ll be a costly outcome. So, a decision to subject her to yet more hospital intervention, which should involve nothing except my desire to do what is right for her – and to keep her – now introduces an additional concern: how to pay to look after her. I don’t even want to have to think in this way.

So, although I’m not poor, I can see how the poor may be blessed. They need to be, more than most.

Melanie McDonagh is comment editor of the London Evening Standard