What it means to embrace Gospel poverty

“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” (Mt 19:21).

Jesus’ words to the rich young man in the Gospel of Matthew will probably make most of us living in developed countries a bit uncomfortable. And if they don’t, they probably should.

In a world of excess and over-consumption, it’s easy to brush off Jesus’ command to sell what you have and give to the poor. He couldn’t possibly mean that literally.

It’s easy to pretend that when he blesses the poor and rebukes the rich that it doesn’t apply to us, especially not in the 21st century. Or when he reminds us that no one can serve both God and mammon (which means riches), we gently tell ourselves that a mental detachment from possessions is enough to keep our eyes focused on heaven.

We like to think about this idea of poverty presented in the Gospel as an interior state, not a material one. But detachment is easy if we are never challenged to actually give up anything of value.

When we hear the word poverty, we usually paint a picture of destitution. However, the Lord’s command here does not promote destitution, but encourages others to work to end it — by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the ill and imprisoned.

Instead, the idea of poverty presented by Christ in the Gospels is what Father Thomas Dubay in his book “Happy Are You Poor” calls a “love-filled sharing frugality.”

Gospel poverty means having less, so we can give more for the sake of the kingdom. It means sacrificing comfort, convenience and consumption so that we can stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters. It makes us more aware of our shared humanity with others and our heart more attuned to their needs.

Gospel poverty is a beatitude that Jesus himself embraced; it is a radical readiness for the kingdom that all of us are called to.

So how can we embrace Jesus’ call to this sparing-sharing way of life today, particularly as lay people?

Live simply

We live in a society today that emphasizes excess, that tells us we need the newest gadgets or the biggest house, or most expensive clothing to be happy and successful.

Servant of God Dorothy Day wrote in her autobiography “The Long Loneliness” that: “The best thing to do with the best things in life is to give them up.”

That’s not to say you can never have pleasurable things, but making the choice to let go of things that are not necessary for the sake of our brothers and sisters.

Make more meals at home instead of eating out. Try giving up eating meat a few times a week or your daily trip to the coffee shop, and use the money to help someone else. Instead of buying new shoes or a coat at the first sign of wear, keep it and remember the people who go without these things every day.

Foster detachment from material possessions

At the heart of Gospel poverty is an understanding that our temporal goods belong to God, not to us. This spirit of detachment allows us to more willingly and more generously share them with others, particularly those in need.

The best way to foster detachment from material possessions is not through a shift in mindset, but by actually detaching ourselves from these items.

St. Basil the Great once said: “The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes.”

How many of us have a wardrobe full of clothes but only wear the same handful of items every day? How many pairs of sandals lay forgotten at the back of our closets “just in case”?

Clean out your closet, your drawers and your cupboards. Donate the items to those who need them, or sell them and give the money to the poor.

Then before making a future purchase, ask yourself if you actually need that item. If you don’t, ask yourself why you want it in the first place.

You’ll find a new sense of freedom and more room in your heart for love when you let go of your attachment to things of this world.

Give from your need

Remember the widow in the Gospel of Mark who gave two small coins into the temple treasury? Of her, Jesus said: “This poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood” (Mk 12:43-44).

Too often we find excuses not to give to others or to the Church. Most of us, when we do give, give from our excess. We donate clothes that no longer fit, or housewares we no longer use; or we give money that we have leftover from our monthly expenses to those in need. It doesn’t demand much sacrifice on our part.

But true generosity requires sacrifice.

Return the first-fruits of our labor to the one who ultimately gave them to us by making tithing a priority when setting your budget. Support a missionary or become a foster parent. Make a meal for a friend or family using some of the food from your trip to the grocery store. Donate some of your clothes to a local women’s shelter.

Ask God how he wants you to give.

Let us not be like the rich young man who, though he followed the commandments to the best of his ability, was unable to follow Christ because he held onto his possessions with an iron-clad grip.

For, “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Mt 19:24).

Let us embrace the beatitude of voluntary poverty presented by Christ to all the faithful, to open ourselves more fully to love.

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