One of the things that I continue to discern on my Franciscan journey is the idea of poverty. When I look to scripture, Jesus is very clear about what it takes to follow him: “Sell all that you have and distribute it to the poor” (Lk 18:22, Mt 19:21, Mk 10:21). It’s no coincidence that this same story is found in each of the synoptic Gospels, nor is it a coincidence that Jesus talks about the poor more than any other subject. Which makes me wonder a few things: 1) Is the vow of poverty an extreme expression of faith in Christ by men and women in religious orders, or is it something to which ALL of his followers are called? 2) Do even men and women religious fall short of Jesus’ expectations when they own simple, practical things like books and cell phones? and 3) Does poverty have a universal standard of living or is it relational to the rest of the community?
Honestly, I have no concrete answers for any of these questions at the moment; I ask them simply to show what sorts of things I think about during the day, and what sorts of things I will be attempting to answer over the next few years. So far, here’s what I’ve come up with:
I was looking around my room the other day, wondering, “What can I live without?” I thought about some of my clothes, the Bowflex dumbbells, and a lot of, if not all of my books. I had no problem imagining life without them because I see them as gifts from God, borrowed and shared so to make my life easier or more pleasurable. If I ever find these things are not being used, I will not hesitate to share them with those with greater need. Good, right? In the case of the rich man talking to Jesus, giving up what he could live without was not the problem though: it was giving up what he found dearest to him, his wealth, that kept him from following Jesus. So I asked myself, “What can’t I live without?” Essentially, what could potentially get in my way of following Jesus? I realized that my Mac computer and my iPhone were items that I prized much higher than anything else, and found myself very reluctant to even imagine life without them.
In one sense, what I take from this passage is that there is a certain disposition we must have towards all that we own, always able to drop whatever we have for the sake of following Christ. When we find ourselves becoming too attached to a certain possession, we might want to consider letting go of it, at least temporarily, as a way to clear the way for following Jesus. In the case of the rich man, it wasn’t the fact that he was rich that was important, but rather that he valued his money more than Jesus. For me, if I want to keep my computer or my phone, I need to start approaching them like my other items: gifts from God that are meant to be borrowed and shared; used but not loved.
That being said, I think this interpretation alone can be a rationalization to ease the consciences of all of us that own more than we need by saying to ourselves, “Well if I were to see Jesus face-to-face today, I would give up my (unneeded possessions) in a heartbeat!” This sort of interpretation upholds the status quo, and doesn’t ask for any true change in us right now. It in effect waters down the message of the Gospel forgetting that this passage still has a literal message: those with ____ need to give to those without ____ in order to follow Jesus. It doesn’t matter how easily we could let go of some of our possessions if we don’t actually do it from time to time.
From this, I think we are all called to determine what we could live without and share it with those in need. Such is the essence of Christianity. Part of my discernment over the next few years will be determine what exactly I could live without, and then to do it. As I begin to go a bit farther and live a life of vowed poverty, I think I’ll need to ask myself a more difficult question: “What can’t I live without, and how am I going to find a way anyway?”