Mystical Word  |  Weekly Reflection
Mystical Word is a weekly reflection on the Sunday Gospel reading by L.J. Milone, Director of Faith Formation, Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle

The Gospel call to voluntary poverty

Our consumer culture resists the Gospel's call to practice voluntary poverty.

To help America regain some of its normalcy after September 11’s terror attacks, President Bush told citizens to go shopping.  The then mayor of San Francisco printed shopping bags with the US flag and the motto “America’s Open for Business.”  Is there any question that shopping, consuming, and economics are the foundations of our society?  The importance we give to the economy reveals how much it preoccupies us, and, in turn, how much our personal financial welfare preoccupies us.  We can get downright petrified when it comes to financial insecurity.  We want a strong economy because that means our personal economics are more secure.  The economic values of conventional American society are, in the end, all about the ego and its need for self-preservation.  This is where our culture gets trapped.  We absolutely need the Gospel truth regarding our economic lives.

In a rare show of anger, Jesus cleanses the Jerusalem temple of merchants and money changers.  Warning!  This is a very dangerous memory!  The Gospel is the story of Jesus being reduced to nothingness, which is the antithesis to the story of conventional society and its worship of the free market.  The Gospel, this story of Jesus’ reduction to nothing, is dangerous.  It denounces the economic status quo of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.  We remember this story by living it.  As disciples we must follow Jesus to the cross and also be reduced to nothingness.  One area where the Gospel sucker-punches us is the economy.  How the country, our state, our town, and our families fare economically is our central concern.  It is the single major issues when it comes to how people vote.  Jesus throwing out the money changers should signal that the God does not want us to make it such a central concern.

Our whole society rests on the system of buying and selling.  Ours is a consumer culture, gobbling up the earth’s resources at a terrifying rate.  The story we tell ourselves as everyday Americans is that consumerism, unbridled capitalism, and the system of buying and selling is what’s really important.  We spend a lot of money doing online shopping.  A trip to the mall becomes an outing, even if we don’t really need to buy anything.  We prefer politicians that grow the economy.  The wealthy and big corporations get tax cuts with the flimsy presumption that wealth trickles down.  The wealthy set the tone: everyday decisions are often based on money.

The Gospel of reduction to nothingness disrupts business as usual.  The status quo can never satisfy the disciple of Jesus.  The status quo typically reflects the interest of the powerful and the rich.  The story of Jesus is dangerous to the rich and powerful because it causes us to remember the victims of history.  Naturally, these are the victims of those who have risen to wealth and power.  Therefore, the disciple of Jesus, like Jesus, must reject the status quo by pointing out our cultural idolatry.  We worship the economy.  What is worse, our religion tends to reinforce this worship!  Sometimes, the church preaches a Gospel of abundance that baptizes the neoliberal agenda of letting the market rule.  Such a strategy inevitably oppresses the poor and destroys the earth by plundering its resources to increase the wealth of the already-wealthy.

We reject this status quo by allowing the Gospel to disrupt our own economic lives.  The Gospel, if we really open to it, will devastate us.  The Gospel of God harangues us about our buying practices.  Where do you spend your money?  How do you spend your money?  Is that spending consistent with the reigning God who comes to clear out the whole system of buying and selling from the temple?  Is it consistent with the blessing Jesus pronounces on the poor?  Is your economic life aligned with the command to sell what you own, give it to the poor, and follow Jesus?

The Gospel disrupts our economic lives by calling us to voluntary poverty, or, a simple way of life.  Possessions possess us.  Our homes quickly fill up with clutter.  We buy and we consume.  We keep getting more stuff.  Here’s a scary observation: we may be able to gauge how much we love God by how much stuff we own.  The more stuff we own, the less we love God.  If we own a lot of things, we give our attention to them.  We have to maintain them.  We might own something for our personal enjoyment.  We also might own something that is useful.  Or, we may simply be buying things at a higher rate than we can maintain, use, or enjoy them.  Whatever the reason, possessions tend to possess us and God gets forgotten.  Jesus is quite radical when it comes to possessions: sell what you own, give it away to the poor, and follow him along the path of being reduced to nothingness. 

Voluntary poverty is a significant way we follow Jesus into the reduction to nothingness.  One way to start living this Gospel virtue is to begin, in a slow, contemplative manner, to declutter our homes.  We can take one room of our homes at a time and remove, sell, or throw out five items a day, for instance.  Pairing down our lives economically means letting go of our personal resources.  So, it makes sense to start with the many physical things we own.  What can we give away?  Even more radically, do we need all our cars?  Do we need a large house?  What privileges can we give up? 

In what ways can we give up our personal political priorities and place the needs of the poor above our own?  In this regard, we can look at how our government budgets tax revenue.  We can work with organizations like NETWORK, a Catholic social justice lobby, to make sure the poor are a priority in the federal budget and that the many federal programs for the poor are cultivated justly.  If the goodness of a society is judged by how it treats the poor, then our society does not appear to be good.

Voluntary poverty is not about being destitute on the streets but minimizing our personal property to be in solidarity with the poor, to conserve the earth’s resources, and, ultimately, to refocus our lives on God alone.  As a Gospel virtue, it means we take seriously Jesus’ constant warning about wealth, riches, and privilege.  It means we throw the money changers out of the temple of our souls, because this obsession with economic growth has infected our very consciousness.  Divine happiness and love then appear in our souls, and from there society will be transformed.