Choosing poverty for the Kingdom


General Audience of November 30, 1994
In the contemporary world, with its blatant contrast between ancient and new forms of greed and the situations of unheard-of misery in which enormously broad strata of society live, the value of poverty freely chosen and consistently practiced is seen ever more clearly at the sociological level.** From the Christian point of view, poverty has always been experienced as a state of life that makes it easier to follow Christ in contemplation, prayer and evangelization**. It is important for the Church that many Christians have a deeper awareness of Christ’s love for the poor and of the urgent need to come to their aid. But it is equally true that conditions in contemporary society point ever more harshly to the distance between the Gospel of the poor and a world often absorbed in pursuing interests connected with the craving of wealth, which has become an idol holding sway over all of life. This is why the Church is ever more intensely aware of the Spirit’s prompting to be poor among the poor,** to remind everyone of the need to conform to the ideal of poverty which Christ preached and practiced and to imitate his sincere, active love for the poor.
In particular, there is in the Church a revitalized and consolidated awareness of the front-line position occupied in this area of gospel values by religious and all those who seek to follow Christ in consecrated life. They are called to reflect in their own person and to witness before the world to the Master’s poverty and his love for the poor. He himself linked the counsel of poverty both to the need for being personally stripped of the burden of earthly belongings so as to possess heavenly goods, and to charity toward the poor: “Go and sell what you have and give to the poor; you will then have treasure in heaven. After that, come and follow me” (Mk 10:21).
In asking for the renunciation, Jesus set for the rich young man a prior condition for following him: that of sharing most closely in the renunciation of the Incarnation. Paul reminded the Christians of Corinth of this, to encourage them to be generous with the poor, imitating the example of Christ, who “made himself poor though he was rich, so that you might become rich by his poverty” (2 Cor 8:9). St. Thomas comments that Jesus “endured material poverty to give us spiritual riches” (Summa Theol., III, q. 40, a. 3). Everyone who accepts his invitation and voluntarily follows the way of poverty he inaugurated is led to enrich the human race spiritually. Far from simply adding their poverty to that of the other poor who fill the world, they are called to bring them true wealth, which is spiritual in nature. As I wrote in Redemptionis Donum, Christ “is the teacher and spokesman of poverty who makes us rich” (n. 12).
If we look at this teacher, we learn from him the true meaning of gospel poverty and the greatness of the call to follow him on the path of this poverty. First of all, we see that Jesus really lived like the poor. According to St. Paul, Christ, the Son of God, embraced the human condition as one of poverty, and
in this human condition Jesus lived a life of poverty.** His birth was that of a poor person, as shown by the hut in which he was born and the manger in which his Mother placed him. For thirty years he lived in a family in which Joseph earned his daily bread by working as a carpenter, work he himself later shared (cf. Mt 13:55; Mk 6:3). In his public life he could say of himself: “The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Lk 9:58), as if to show his total dedication to his messianic mission in conditions of poverty. He died as a slave and poor man on the cross, literally stripped of everything. He chose to be poor to the very end.
Jesus proclaimed the blessedness of the poor: “Blest are you poor; the reign of God is yours” (Lk 6:20). In this regard we should remember that the Old Testament already spoke of the “Lord’s poor” (cf. Ps 74:19; 149:4f.), the object of God’s good will (Is 49:13; 66:2). This does not mean simply the destitute, but rather the lowly who sought God and trustfully put themselves under his protection. This attitude of humility and trust clarifies the expression used in Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes: “How blest are the poor in spirit” (Mt 5:3). The poor in spirit are all those who do not put their trust in money or material possessions, and are open instead to the kingdom of God. However, it is precisely this value of poverty that Jesus praised and recommended as a life choice, which can include a voluntary renunciation of belongings, and precisely so on behalf of the poor. It is the privilege of some who are chosen and called to this way by him.
However, Jesus affirmed for everyone the need to make a basic decision regarding earthly goods–to be freed of their tyranny. No one, he said, can serve two masters. One either serves God or serves mammon (cf. Lk 16:13; Mt 6:24). The idolatry of mammon, or money, is incompatible with serving God. Jesus noted that the rich are more easily attached to money (called mamôna’ in Aramaic, meaning “riches”), and have difficulty in turning to God. “How hard it will be for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Lk 18:24-25; and par.).
Jesus warned against the twofold danger of earthly possessions–that with wealth one’s heart is closed to God and is closed to one’s neighbor, as we see in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (cf. Lk 16:19-31). Nevertheless, Jesus did not condemn the possession of earthly goods absolutely. Instead, he was anxious to remind those who own them of the twofold commandment of love of God and love of neighbor. But he asks much more of anyone who can and wishes to understand this.
The Gospel is clear on this point:
Jesus asked those he called and invited to follow him to share his own poverty by renouncing their possessions, however great or few they may be
. We already quoted his invitation to the rich young man: “Sell what you have and give to the poor” (Mk 10:21).


It was a fundamental requirement, repeated many times, which meant giving up home and property (cf. Mk 10:29; and par.), or boat (cf. Mt 4:22), or even everything: “None of you can be my disciple if he does not renounce all his possessions” (Lk 14:33). To his “disciples,” that is, those called to follow him by totally giving of themselves, Jesus said: “Sell what you have and give alms” (Lk 12:33).
This poverty is asked of those who are willing to follow Christ in consecrated life. Their poverty is expressed concretely in a juridical way, as the Council recalls. It can take various forms: the radical renunciation of owning property, as in the ancient “mendicant orders,” and as practiced today by the members of other religious congregations, and other possible forms which the Council encourages to be sought (cf. PC 13). What matters is that poverty be really lived as a sharing in Christ’s poverty: “With regard to religious poverty it is not enough to use goods in a way subject to the superior’s will, but members must be poor both in fact and in spirit, their treasures being in heaven (cf. Mt 6:20)” (PC 13).
Institutes themselves are called to a collective witness to poverty. Giving new authority to the voice of so many teachers of spirituality and religious life, the Council especially stressed that institutes “should avoid every appearance of luxury, excessive wealth and the accumulation of goods” (PC 13). Again, their poverty should be animated by a spirit of sharing between provinces and houses, and of generosity “for the needs of the Church and the support of the poor” (PC 13).
Another point, which is emerging again and again in the recent development of the forms of poverty, is seen in the Council’s recommendation concerning “the common law of labor” (PC 13). In the past, there was the choice and practice of begging, a sign of poverty, humility and beneficial charity toward the needy. Today it is rather by their labor that religious “procure what is required for their sustenance and works” (PC 13). It is a law of life and a practice of poverty. Embracing it freely and joyfully means accepting the counsel and believing in the gospel blessedness of poverty. It is the greatest service that religious can give to the Gospel in this respect: witnessing to and practicing the spirit of trusting abandonment into the Father’s hands as true followers of Christ, who lived and taught that spirit and left it as an inheritance to his Church.

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