The Obligation of Every Christian
In every age, when the Church has pursued reform, the reformers have gotten back to a life of profound poverty. Francis of Assisi is a classic example, Dominic Guzman, founder of the Dominicans, another. Teresa of Avila, and Ignatius of Loyola are two more prime examples, as is St. John Vianney. Blessed Anna-Maria Taigi, lived, if not evangelical poverty, which she hardly could have done as a wife, and mother of seven children, at least Gospel simplicity. Every Christian is called to live this simplicity. Fr. Thomas Dubay wrote in his excellent book, Happy Are You Poor, "Scripture scholars seem to be of one mind... that most New Testament texts that deal with poverty as an ideal are meant to be applied to all who follow Christ."
The most important example of simplicity is that of the Holy Family. Jesus was born in a stable. A stable! The Son of God! Was that a fluke, or was there a message there, namely, as St. Francis understood, that we should live humbly, simply? Jesus lived simply, and encouraged his followers to do the same: "Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God" (Lk 6:20).
If we observe the lives of the saints, we can see that much of their credibility came from the fact that they lived so simply. In their very lives they taught detachment from material goods, and the importance of living for the Kingdom. This gives the Gospel a richness that the world can admire. Even the media-yes the media!-could hardly resist little (Bl.) Mother Teresa of Calcutta, a poor sister who cared for the poor.
Danger of Riches
Jesus warns us of the dangers of riches: "Woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation" (Lk 6:24); "Amen, I say to you, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (Mt. 19:23, 24).
Why is the Lord so hard on the rich? St. Ignatius of Loyola gives us an insight. He wrote in the Spiritual Exercises: "[The devil] bids [his demons] first to tempt men with the lust of riches... that they may thereby more easily gain the empty honor of the world, and then come to unbounded pride. The first step in his snare is that of riches, the second honor, and the third, pride." Pride is the root of every vice.
Well, "I'm not really rich," some will say. "I live comfortably, but I'm not rich." But, if we look at the world history, we in the U.S. are some of the richest people who have ever lived. And, if we look at the other parts of the world, Africa, India, South and Central America, we could hardly be seen as anything but rich.
Paul tells us there is great danger in riches:
There is great gain in godliness with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out... if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have strayed from the faith... (1 Tim 6:6-10).
James has strong words for the rich as well: "For the sun comes up with its scorching heat and dries up the grass, its flower droops, and the beauty of its appearance vanishes. So will the rich person fade away in the midst of his pursuits" (James 1:11).
Whatever You Do for the Least...
There is another reason not to be rich: We are responsible for the poor. We cannot live in relative luxury while the poor do not have enough to eat. We find in the first letter of John, "But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth" (1 Jn 3:17).
St. Ambrose had strong words about helping the poor: "You are not making a gift of your possessions to the poor person. You are handing over to him what is his. For, what has been given in common for the use of all, you have claimed for yourself. The world is given to all, and not only to the rich."
Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink... naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty... and did not minister to you?' Then he will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.' And they will go into eternal punishment... (Mt. 25:41-46).
Those are powerful words, even frightening. They should bring to mind two questions: 1) Do we help the poor? and 2) Do we help them enough? In light of these, we might ask ourselves, "Well, what can I buy and not offend the Lord? Should I feel guilty going out to dinner once in a while?"
The answer is broadly given in Scripture. In the Old Testament it is recommended that we give one-tenth of our income back to the Lord (Dt. 15:28, 29; Num 18:23, 24). Some suggest that we give five percent to the poor and five percent to support the Church.
Ten percent should be the average. Some, at least for a time, might have to struggle giving five percent. Others may find that they can live quite comfortably giving twenty or twenty-five percent. How can you at least be morally certain that you are giving enough? It seems you should feel you have made a sacrifice. Pope John Paul II said in 1979 at Yankee Stadium, "You must never be content to leave [the poor] the crumbs from your feast. You must take of your substance and not just your abundance to help them. And, you must treat them like guests at your family table."
One young couple began to give ten percent of their income to the Lord, but they were perplexed as to whether it should be ten percent of the net or gross. So, they went to their parish priest and asked his advice. He must have been Irish-he answered with a question, "Do you want your blessings net or gross?" They gave ten percent of their gross.
Alms: The Best Investment
We tend to forget that giving to the Lord is a great investment. He promised a 100-fold return to anyone who would give up things for him (Mk 10:29, 30). That's a 10,000% return. No mutual fund will give you that!
The Scriptures speak a great deal about giving to the poor: "Store up almsgiving in your treasury, and it will rescue you from all affliction..." (Sir. 29:12). And,
If you have many possessions, make your gift from them in proportion; if few, do not be afraid to give according to the little you have. So you will be laying up a good treasure for yourself against the day of necessity. For charity delivers from death and keeps you from entering the darkness... (Tobit 4:8-11).
Our Blessed Lord said, "Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys" (Lk 12:33). And, again in Tobit we read, "It is better to give alms than to store up gold; for almsgiving saves one from death and expiates every sin. Those who regularly give alms shall enjoy a full life" (Tob 12:8,9).
Judging by my own experience, and that of others, it seems that God is very quick to reward those who give to the poor and to the Church. And he is never outdone in generosity.
The Christian Shopper
It seems that there are two ways to go when it comes to shopping. The first is to buy at the upscale stores, the second, to buy at the discount stores. And, surprisingly, I have discovered that the discount store way brings no less happiness than the upscale. True, you have to develop an eye for what is quality, what will last and what will not, but once you master that, you lose very little by shopping at discount stores.
We should reflect on the words of Jesus above when we are considering the purchase of a new house. Is this the sort of house the Lord would have us buy? Is this the kind of house Jesus would live in? Can we buy this house knowing how the poor are housed in South America? Can this house be part of Christian simplicity? Can we afford to help the poor, and have a mother at home for our children if we buy this house? How often couples strap themselves with crushingly burdensome payments when they buy a house beyond their means. Or, even if it is within their means, perhaps it flies in the face of Christian simplicity.
Do we take into account the poor when we buy a car? Can we justify an expensive, gas-guzzling car, knowing that some in our world haven't even the means to buy a car?
This is not to say we must sell our cars and houses right away if we bought them before we thought of all this. But, when we go out to buy our next ones, then we should buy with an eye for simplicity.
Can we justify frequent visits to the beauty parlor at $50 to $100 per session? Must the furniture we buy be new and expensive? Or, might we get the same quality or better in used furniture? When we want some new thing, do we wait a few weeks or months to reflect on whether we really need it? Must we spend so much on clothes? Again, could we perhaps find high quality clothing in consignment shops? Would Mary and Joseph shop in consignment shops? I believe they would.
All of these attempts to save money should be done not so that we can hoard money, but so that we can give more to Jesus in his poor. And, as we have seen, how important it is that we do help the poor!
Teaching Children Simplicity
Pope John Paul II points out that parents must teach their children not to be materialistic:
Children must grow up with a correct attitude of freedom with regard to material goods, by adopting a simple and austere lifestyle and being fully convinced that "man is more precious for what he is than for what he has" (Familiaris consortio, n. 37).
Parents who buy their children $70 or $100 sneakers, or $70 chains, or $150 leather jackets, or give them expensive gifts for birthdays or Christmas, are not teaching them a "simple and austere lifestyle."
It has been said that there are two philosophies in life. The first is to feast first and then suffer the hangover. The second is to fast first, and then feast. Need we say which is the Christian philosophy? Applied to the use of money, those who save for what they want, doing without in the meantime, will save a fortune in interest over those who buy everything on credit. And, those who live simply early in life, will have money to spare later on.
As Janet Luhrs said in her delightful book, The Simple Living Guide:
Simple living is about living deliberately. You choose your existence rather than go through life on automatic pilot... [it's] about having money in the bank and a zero balance on your credit card statement... When you simplify, you'll have space and time to know and love people in a deeper way... You'll surround yourself with people who like and love you for who you are deep inside...
Living simply will allow you the freedom to work moderate hours, and thus have the time for intimate friendships, with God and others.
Living simply includes good stewardship of what we do own. For example, the person who keeps his house or car in good repair, will save a good deal of money, money that can be shared with the poor.
Living simply, however, does not mean having inefficient tools. St. Maximilian Kolbe lived in Franciscan poverty, yet always bought the best printing presses so that they could efficiently do their publishing. By doing so, he was conserving time, as well as money.
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In summary then, there are several reasons why the Christian should live simply: Jesus lived simply, and urged his followers to do likewise; the Lord expects us to care for the poor as we would for Christ himself; giving back to the Lord in his poor and his Church is a great investment; living simply allows us the freedom to have intimate friendships, with God and others.
Your standard of living should be based not so much on your income, but on your faith commitment.
Originally published in the May/June issue of LayWitness Magazine.