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Poverty: So That God May Be All in All Scott Lyons 8/4/2017
"What sorrow awaits you who are rich, for you have your only happiness now" (Luke 6:24, NLT).
Stewardship, generosity, frugality—these are all good terms for how we must think about ourselves in relationship to our neighbor. And yet I prefer the word poverty, which spurns my complacency. If I’m not consistently frugal, I don’t feel too bad about myself. I can be generous without any costly sacrifice. I can be a good steward of my resources while maintaining my resources. Poverty, however, is disruptive. When Jesus says, "You cannot become my disciple without giving up everything you own," (Luke 14:33, NLT) it is clear he is not suggesting we shop with coupons. To the average American, there is no discipline more disconcerting than one that so absolutely interferes with our material possessions. Say the word poverty and all the flags of contestation are raised, a chorus of qualifications are sounded, and the message is nearly drowned out in the cacophony of howevers.
In his Sermon in the Valley, Jesus said: "God blesses you who are poor, for the Kingdom of God is yours" (Luke 6:20, NLT). "How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God!" (Mark 10:23, NLT). This lament carries down through the centuries and, today, lands on the ears of the richest people in the history of the world. But to what effect? Instead we pay men and women to tell us that God does not mean that he wants us to be poor because, they argue, poverty is an evil. And if poverty is an evil, then wealth is a good.
Yet Jesus comes down into this half-formed syllogism and shows it to be foolishness, changes the premise, and what we think solely an evil, he calls a blessing. (There is a notable difference between voluntary and involuntary poverty, but there is blessing in both. I am not saying that it is good for children to die of malnutrition, or for people to die for lack of clean water or inexpensive medicines.) It is interesting to look throughout the history of the Church at the number of lives of radical Christians who were converted by this teaching: "If you want to be perfect, go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me" (Matthew 19:21, NLT). Even today you see that Christians and non-Christians alike glorify God because of the good works of those who took this teaching to heart.
In contrast, we are conditioned to protest when we hear Jesus' counsel to the Rich Young Ruler to give away his possessions. We learn the necessary explications and interpretations to render the story impotent. We eagerly listen to those who tell us that giving away all that we own is bad stewardship, all the while ignoring that Jesus' counsel to the Rich Young Ruler is for his salvation and not simply for the benefit of the poor.
Basil the Great said, "The bread which you do not use is the bread of the hungry; the garment hanging in your wardrobe is the garment of him who is naked; the shoes that you do not wear are the shoes of the one who is barefoot; the money that you keep locked away is the money of the poor. The acts of charity that you do not perform are the injustices you commit." Gregory of Nyssa said, "There is your brother, naked and crying! And you stand confused over choice of floor covering." And John the Baptist said—with some liberty taken on my part—"Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God. Don’t just say to each other, 'We’re safe, for we are [Christians].' That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create [Christians] from these very stones. . . . The crowds asked, 'What should we do?' John replied, 'If you have two shirts, give one to the poor. If you have food, share it with those who are hungry'" (Luke 3:8,10,11, NLT).
We must provide for the needs of our families. But we must understand that meeting the needs of our families does not mean that they need the latest video games or their own cell phones or cars. Depending on your situation, it might mean some of these things. Providing for your family may mean you need a larger house, but it may also mean that a smaller house is sufficient. It means that you will have expenses such as clothes and food, but who can justify spending $100 on a pair of jeans? Maybe your circumstances demand it of you, mine do not. For the work that I do, I need a computer; maybe you do not need one. I need a large vehicle to carry my family, but perhaps a small, energy-efficient model is all you need. Or a bike. Or no vehicle at all. Our circumstances differ in many ways; we each have our own needs. But our goal in spiritual discipline is not to excuse us from the discipline but to find ways to participate in it. What do I need? What do I spend money on that deprives the hungry of food and the naked of clothes? Who are we Christians? Who are we meant to be?
We are to be pitied if we find our consolation in the abundance of what we have. God is our reward. Let us not walk away from our Lord, saddened because of our great wealth. Likewise, let us not deceive ourselves into thinking that we can be holy while ignoring the needs of the poor or by pretending they do not exist.
Do what you can—this is a wonderful expression and summary of true Christian spirituality. Love your neighbor as you can, but love your neighbor. Try life with only ten pair of shoes. A year from now, try it with two. Clean out your closet, and open your pantry doors. The poor are among us. Abandon yourselves to your Father’s care.
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