Because Jesus made it such an important priority in his teaching, we often talk about the spirit of poverty – as we sit in comfortably air conditioned or heated rooms, well dressed, well fed, and with plenty of money in our pockets. Is that so-called “spirit of poverty” a myth for us fortunate people who want for nothing essential and have so many comforts besides?
But, short of absolute poverty – of giving away everything we own and then living with only what is absolutely necessary for life — what can we and should we do, what lifestyle are we entitled to as Christians, as human beings? Are we expected to strip down our lifestyles to the point of imitating monks in their cloistered monasteries?
No, unless we feel inclined to such an extraordinary life. Once or twice a year, I go to the Trappist Monastery in Massachusetts, sometimes just for the day. I’ve been doing that for almost 60 years because I have come to realize how much I can profit by exposing my mind & heart to the wisdom of men who see the world through the lens of virtually uninterrupted attention to the presence of Christ.
But my monk-friends’ life of simplicity, of complete material non-ownership, is not for me; I’m sure of that. My spirit of poverty has to be expressed in ways different from theirs. To the rich young man who approached Jesus to find out what he needed to do in order to attain eternal life, Jesus said that his just and charitable ways were enough and then reminded him that there was another option open to him: if he chose to, he could sell everything he owned, give the money to the poor, and follow him in a special way. It was an option, not a requirement; the young man would know somehow after prayer and reflection whether it was for him or not.
I would think that most of us middle class American Christians identify with that rich young man. If that is so, we are left with a requirement that has to be met: Jesus expects us to determine what our stewardship pattern should be, asking ourselves questions like these:
Do we ever do without something we’d like to have so that someone else may have something he or she desperately needs?
Are we generous in sharing the use of the things we own?
Do we in general try to make do with our possessions and not keep replacing them just for the sake of novelty?
Do we make sure that a decent portion of our income, no matter what earning category we are in or what our present needs are, goes to those who are in dire need?
Are we willing to share our time with those who need our attention, even if that is inconvenient for us?
Do we practice good ecology in the use of fuel and food and other gifts of the earth, not merely to save money but to make more available to those who have not enough for a basically human life?
And so on…
The power of the middle class, the power of the Christian community, is in doing good together. None of us can eradicate degrading poverty by providing for millions of our fellow humans. What is asked of us, what is expected from us who say we are the followers of Jesus of Nazareth, is to act in harmony with the best efforts of good people everywhere – of whatever religion or nationality. The church will have become fully the Body of Christ on earth when such generous, conscientious sharing is its universal way of life. In the meantime, as we move closer and closer to that goal, each of us who hear the Gospel must act now if we are going to give an acceptable account of our stewardship.
To be a partner with the Lord of Life in providing for others a share in the necessities of life is a work so satisfying and peace-giving that we will inevitably discover that Jesus calls us, not really to do without, but to gain so much more.