I often wonder what would happen if our government changed the status of non-profit Christian institutions and became aggressive toward them. What if the government decided to confiscate the endowments of our schools and churches? What would we do? How would we respond to such an afront? What if we were required to turn over our treasures to the government?
If I daydream about some heroic action on my part, would I respond by creating an underground resistance? Would I apply some creative response to the conflict and offer the government the true treasures of the church? Would I simply comply and go about my own business?
Fortunately, in our rich tradition, we have many saints who offered a template on how to respond to nefarious governments and leaders. When Saint Lawrence, a deacon of the third century, faced a similar problem when Valerian, the emperor of Rome, began his persecution of the clergy and upper-class Christians. Valerian began confiscating all church property and outlawed meetings of Christians. Rome enacted such methods to squash other movements that seemed contrary to the purpose of the state.
Since Lawrence was the chief financial officer in Rome, he was given the option by the Roman prefect to surrender the “treasures of the church” and receive his freedom or resist and be put to death. Tradition says that Lawrence agreed to hand over the treasures, but he needed three days to gather them. During those three days, he transferred the money at his disposal to trusty stewards. Lawrence then assembled the sick, the old, the poor, the widows, and the orphans of his congregations. He presented them to the prefect and explained, “These are the treasures of the church.” We don’t need to imagine how the prefect responded.
According to tradition, the prefect ordered Lawrence to be put to death by being roasted alive. Lawrence calmly accepted his martyrdom. It is reported Lawrence said to his executioners, “You can turn me over, I am done on this side.” His example of courage impressed the people of Rome. Consequently, many people, especially pagans, converted to Christianity, reducing the belief that Christianity was a socially unacceptable movement which needed to be eradicated. In an ironic twist, Lawrence’s death inspired the Christian movement and helped it flourish. Yes, death leads to life.
Not many of us are called to martyrdom. However, Christ calls all Christians to die to self. This dying to self often leads to granting life to others. How do we who live in a society that offers freedom of religion follow the example of Lawrence, especially since we will not likely have the opportunity to die for our faith?
Perhaps, we need to focus on the purpose of the Gospel, realizing two critical things about it. First, its message around the redemption offered by Christ frees us from sin and death. This redemption is offered to all people – our friends and foes. Christ died so all people could be redeemed by the blood of the cross. Christianity is not an exclusive movement. Second, the law of the gospel calls us to love our neighbor. Perhaps, this is how we die to our self. We put our neighbors’ needs before our own needs. This is a heavy cross to lift, which requires a steadfast desire to do all things for Christ. When we love our neighbor and we expand the definition of neighbor to make it universally inclusive, we are building up the treasures of the church.
To love our neighbor as ourselves, we must care across differences. Lawrence cared across differences, solely focused on Christ and made Christ his primary purpose in life. That’s why he saw the marginalized, the poor, the hungry, the sick, the widows, and orphans as the true treasures of the church. He died to self in order that others might live.
As Christians today, how do we die to self so that others might live? What is the true purpose of our church schools and parishes. If we think it is about advancing students to top tier colleges or increasing our financial sustainability by attracting new members, then we are fooling ourselves. Our treasures do not lie in quantitative results of college acceptances and yearly pledges. Our treasures lie with the people we serve. Our treasures lie in quality of care we give one another. Our treasures lie in our willingness to care across differences.
[Image Credit: ‘Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P.’ via Flickr]