Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series by Br. John Mark on the Church’s response to poverty.
A woman wearing a travel-pack is thumbing for a ride at the traffic light just ahead. At the end of the block stands a pack of able-bodied men “hanging” outside a sooty storefront. Merging onto the highway, a makeshift hobo camp flashes by, sheltered beneath an underpass. You are stung by the question: “Would anyone choose this?”
In this post, I consider those whose poverty is material and involuntary, and connect it to the poverty Christ did choose–a kind he invited his followers to choose as well.
Not experiencing extreme poverty directly, many of us feel deep empathy for the poor. Their plight is real and tragic, and it is both bodily and spiritual. First, the poor have a manifest hunger for the basic necessities many take for granted–like food and secure shelter. But they have a second, even more human desire to be in the company of people who love them. Thirdly, the poor want something meaningful to do. Obtaining a stable job (or, even better, a satisfying one) imbues individuals with a greater sense of dignity and self-worth.
While some empathize, others are moved to judge the poor. Desperation causes people to make choices that harm others and themselves, socially and spiritually. We can tend to see the sin only and lose sight of the sinner. We might even be judgmental at the same time we’re trying to empathize. Is the woman at the traffic light, as sad as she makes me feel, responsible for her present situation? As natural as this question might be, it is often not within our capacity to know the answer. What we do know is that no one–God least of all–chooses the evil present in the effects of poverty per se.
Before any of us can fruitfully minister to those suffering because of involuntary poverty, we must begin by recognizing our own poverty, the one caused by sin. Pope Francis delivers to us good news concerning our experience of the poverty of sin: “[God] feels responsible; that is, he desires our well being and he wants to see us happy, full of joy, and peaceful.” Recalling the parable of the missing son (cf. Lk 15:11-32), we see that God is like a father who has determined to do anything in his power to provide for the happy fulfillment of his child. Consequently, we must believe that God, generous to the point of appearing foolish, desires to see all the poor freed from those things that compromise our innate dignity. He makes a choice of his own: God reveals his mercy in the mission of his Son, Jesus. Jesus teaches us God’s unconditional love for those deprived of their human dignity. His life was given over to self-emptying acts of mercy (cf. Phil 2:7). He chose to become poor that we might become rich (cf. 2 Cor 8:9).
Wonderfully, in contrast to the material poverty that seems so much beyond our ability to control, there is something important everyone can choose freely at any time: to seek out the “face of mercy” revealed in the humanity of Jesus Christ. Through the waters of baptism and participation in the life of the Church we can receive God’s forgiveness for our deepest failings. Jesus’ self-abasing generosity restores the relationship with God which we marred by sin. The result is enjoyment of an everlasting inheritance full of the happiness, joy, and peace for which we were made. The Pope announces that in this restored state, the baptized in turn become signs of God’s mercy to others.
Flowing from this confession, the Church can be proactive in her response to the question of poverty. In fact, she can makes a choice of preferential love for the poor. That is, no one should live in perpetual need of basics like food, care, and work. Believers are reminded of their responsibility in Isaiah 58:7-8: when we share our bread with the hungry, bring the afflicted and the homeless into our house, and clothe the naked when we see them, then our “light shall break forth like the dawn” and our “vindication will go before [us].” This is first a choice made out of a spirit of justice, to give others what they inherently deserve. For those living in God, it is also a marvelous choice to love, imitating his own life-restoring action.
So, would anyone choose poverty? Certainly not in the sense of seeking out the miserable consequences of hunger or joblessness. Having received God’s mercy, we are empowered to try to counteract these problems. But on the other hand, we are called to choose poverty by association: Jesus blesses those who, like him, would divest themselves in order to assist the poor and focus on what is most important: “What you did to one of these least ones, you did to me” (Mt 21:41-45), he says. Elsewhere he instructs, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Mt 19:21). When Christians choose to follow Christ, they see that contact with the poor paradoxically leads to possessing more.
Observe saints like Mother Teresa, who, through constant service to the poor, had a life full of rich and meaningful encounters. Could her heart refuse anyone in need? And in light of her choice for the poor, would anyone not want to spend time with a heart so enlarged? Perhaps this is what Jesus meant when he taught “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God” (Mt 5:3). Material poverty, not chosen for its own sake, seems to invite another kind of poverty that can be happily elected. For a present-day example of such fruitful self-donation, check out the blog of A Simple House. In their chosen poverty, these Christians and their efforts have been blessed with many riches.
Image: Timothy Schmalz, Jesus the Homeless