When we think about poverty, we usually think about starving children in the third world, the homeless, or the elderly living on fixed incomes. We may feel badly for these people and occasionally drop a donation for them in the collection basket or hand a beggar a few dollars. Rarely do we seek to help the poor in a way that would radically change our lives and stretch us out of our comfort zone. Yet if we start to unpack Jesus’s teachings about riches in the Gospel, we see that He calls all of us to a more generous way of life.
He invites the rich young man to “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven” (Mark 10:21). He praises the widow for contributing all that she had as an offering to God. (Mark 12:44). He warns his disciples not to store up their treasures on earth (Luke 12:16-21). His Apostles established a community which supporting each other through the sharing of material gifts (Acts 2:44-45).
The radical nature of the Gospel message to detach one’s self from their possessions and give to the poor frightens me because I am attached to many things such as, my job, my car, financial security, etc,. Yet God wants us to free ourselves from the love of things so we can love Him who has made those things. The less we are tied down by our possessions, the more joyful we can become as followers of Christ.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to find many examples of the evangelical poverty ideals lived out among lay Christians today. Too often, we are worried about the same things as our secular counterparts, job security, retirement savings, the newest electronics, etc. These distractions can even seep into our prayer lives as we become overly concerned about our financial situation. However, Pope Francis reminds us that:
“Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades.” (Evangelii Gaudium 2)
Clearly, we cannot grow in virtue if we are so absorbed in worldly pursuits, but how do we practically live out the call to Gospel poverty so that we carve out space for God and the poor in our lives? It starts with having a healthy view of possessions. The catechism states that all Christians are called to:
direct their affections rightly, lest they be hindered in their pursuit of perfect charity by the use of worldly things and by an adherence to riches which is contrary to the spirit of evangelical poverty (CCC 2545).
Possessions are a means not an end. We do need things to live on earth, but they should not dictate how we spend our time and energy.
We should also look at how we choose to spend our money. Track your expenses for a month and record where your money goes. Bring that list to prayer and ask God if you were a good steward of the resources that he gave you. If there are areas where you have overindulged, commit to spending less so that you can free up money to give to the poor.
For those who already giving to charity, ask yourself if you support the Church and the poor out of your excess or your want? In other words, are you willing to change your lifestyle by eating out less, buying less expensive clothes, houses or cars so that you can support the poor? The apostle James admonishes us that it is our duty to clothe the naked and feed the hungry (James 2:15-16). Do we take this admonition seriously or are we only worried about our needs?
As the laity, we are the representatives of Christ in the world. People should see that the radical call of the Gospel in how we approach material goods. Instead of focusing so much time and energy on accumulating things, we must be willing to simplify our lives and serve Christ. Periodically purge your closet and basement of items that you no longer need and maybe some things that you still enjoy so that you can remove worldly temptations from your life.
As we go about simplifying our lives, we must do it in a spirit of cheerfulness. If we begrudgingly give up that extra latte in the morning or a new pair of shoes than we miss the whole point. Christ calls us to evangelical poverty not because possessions are bad, but because if we misuse them they can hinder our relationship with Him. Evangelical poverty is not merely seeing how much we can give up, but desiring to be filled so much by Christ, that we no longer desire the things of this world and are not distracted by fleeting wealth and pleasure. We are merely pilgrims whose goal is heaven, not the biggest house on the block.
I realize that I have only scratched the surface of what it means for the laity to live a life detached from material goods and focused on Christ. For further study on this topic, I highly recommend Fr. Thomas’ Dubay’s book, Happy are You Poor. However, I warn you, only read this book if you are willing to change your way of life. He pulls no punches in calling all Christians to embrace God’s call to simplicity and a life of joy.