WHAT IS CHRISTIAN POVERTY?
WHAT IS CHRISTIAN POVERTY?
Jesus told the rich young man, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” What does Jesus mean by this? Surely, Our Lord does not look at earthly things in a pessimistic way, for all created realities are good. What Jesus reminds us is to have the correct attitude towards them in such a manner that they don’t become an obstacle towards arriving at our heavenly home. This attitude was taught by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they shall theirs in the kingdom of heaven (Mt 5:3).”
The Commentary to the Gospel of St. Matthew (Navarre Bible) explains that: “This text outlines the connection between poverty and the soul.
- This religious concept of poverty was deeply rooted in the Old Testament (cf., for example, Zeph 2:311). It was more to do with a RELIGIOUS ATTITUDE OF NEEDINESS AND OF HUMILITY TOWARDS GOD THAN WITH MATERIAL POVERTY: that person is poor who has recourse to God without relying on his own merits and who trusts in God’s mercy to be saved.
- This religious attitude of poverty is closely related to what is called “SPIRITUAL CHILDHOOD”. A Christian sees himself as a little child in the presence of God, a child who owns nothing: everything he has comes from God and belongs to God. Certainly, spiritual poverty, that is, Christian poverty, means one must be detached from material things and practise austerity in using them.
- This should not be confused with the poverty which God asks certain people — religious — to be legally detached from ownership and thereby bear witness to others of the transitoriness of earthly things.”
For a Christian who lives in the midst of the world material goods are necessary. However, he or she should never forget that the goods of this earth are in fact goods that should serve to benefit one’s family and society as a whole. We Christians must sanctify ourselves by the way in which we put these goods to use. There is nothing further from the spirit of true poverty than to view the world and its riches with suspicion or contempt. God looks with favour on authentic progress and material development. We all have to struggle against poverty, misery and every kind of situation that degrades human dignity.
The poverty of a normal Christian is not a matter of exterior appearance. Christian poverty has to do with something deeper, with the orientation of the human heart. It has to do with being humble before God, recognising one’s total dependence on him. This kind of poverty is shown in a faith proved by works. If someone has this virtue and is blessed with material wealth, then that person’s Christian response will be one of detachment and charity. The person who lacks material wealth is not justified in the sight of God for that reason alone. The poor person has to struggle to acquire the virtues necessary to live poverty in a Christian way. A poor person can certainly act with generosity. The poor person, too, has to be detached – from what little he possesses.
Jesus was always very close to the poor, the sick and whoever was in need. Yet among those drawn to his Person there seems to have been a number of wealthy people. For example, the women who took care of the material needs of the Master and his Apostles must have been fairly well-to-do A few of the Apostles, like Matthew and the sons of Zebedee, were men of some means. Joseph of Anmathea was a man of substance who was specifically identified as one of Christ’s disciples (Matt 27:57). It was he and Nicodemus who had the privilege of taking down the body of Our Lord from the Cross (John 19:38). Joseph gave Christ his tomb, and Nicodemus contributed, we are told, a mixture of myrrh and aloes weighing about one hundred pounds. The family of Martha, Mary and Lazarus was probably of considerable social standing, since we know that ‘many Jews’ went to mourn the death of Lazarus. Christ asked the rich tax-collector Zacchaeus if He could stay in his home, and later accepted him as a disciple (Luke 19:5). The very cloak that Jesus wore was valuable, as shown by the fact that it was woven from top to bottom without seam …
Earthly goods are not bad, but they are debased when man sets them up as idols, when he adores them. They are ennobled when they are converted into instruments for good, for just and charitable Christian undertakings. We cannot seek after material goods as if they were a treasure. Our treasure is Christ and all our love and desire must be centred on him (St. Josemaria Escrivá, Christ is passing by, 35)… He is the truth that defines our life, and above which there is no other. We need to imitate him, according to our personal circumstances. We can never assume that we are thoroughly detached, since it is the nature of every man and every woman to create personal idols, to have unnecessary ‘needs’, to spend more than is really necessary, to give in to one’s whims. As the Second Vatican Council teaches us, … man should regard the external things that he legitimately possesses not only as his own but also as common in the sense that they should be able to benefit not only him but also others (Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et spes, 69).
We should examine how detached we are from material things and ask ourselves whether we have our hearts utterly set upon the Lord. This involves both things of the moment and things of lesser consequence, since one clear sign of detachment is genuinely not to consider any thing as one’s own (St. Josemaria, The Forge, 524)
SOURCE: Book of Meditations (private collection)