Throughout history, there have been many explanations of the existence of poverty. Poverty is sometimes seen as the just wrath of God for a particular people’s sinfulness. Some see the poor as parasites seeking a free ride on the productive class. Some see poverty as a failing of human society to provide the means and opportunities for the poor.
Regardless of the reason poverty exists, modern man has a great aversion to poverty. Governments focus on economic growth and social safety nets, seeking to win the “war on poverty”. Vast taxes are collected and redistributed and charitable organizations plead for money to give to the poor. Many people battle against poverty by feeding the poor, going on mission trips or volunteering in homeless shelters. There is a hope that somehow poverty can somehow be eradicated like a disease, reduced or at least conveniently kept out of plain sight to reduce the guilt of the prosperous.
Instead of poverty, the modern culture embraces a wholesale pursuit of over-the-top material prosperity. In the secular society, lives are mortgaged to the hilt in order to consume like the prosperous, to support an unsupportable level of consumption. Every appetite is catered to in “supersize” fashion, be it the amount of food consumed, the size and finish of homes lived in, the cars driven, the entertainment and thrills pursued, the alcohol and drugs consumed or the pornography viewed. In some religious movements, a “prosperity gospel” is excitedly preached, a false belief that God’s whole point of creating humans is so they can be materially prosperous; the idea of “abundance” is twisted into irrational materialism.
Clearly, the modern world has an insatiable ambition for prosperity and an fearful aversion to poverty.
Jesus Christ’s Gospel of Poverty
In stark contrast, Jesus Christ, in the Incarnation, fully embraces poverty.
Rather then coming in material riches worthy of God, Jesus wholly embraces poverty. Stooping from the unimaginable infinity of His Divinity, God takes on the limiting poverty of humanity in the Incarnation. Jesus stoops to the lowest entry point of humanity, bypassing earthly riches and power, coming as a helpless child born to a young woman and an earthly father who is a “backwoods” carpenter. Jesus, the God of the Universe, allows Himself to be further bound in swaddling clothing, helpless and poor. His early life is spent on the run as a refugee in Egypt.
When He launches His public ministry, Jesus lives a life that embraces poverty. After His baptism, Jesus goes into the wilderness, living as a starving person might, without food for forty days. He lives the life of a poor itinerate preacher, walking on foot for thousands of miles and often sleeping outdoors. He lives with the poor, heals the poorest of the poor, the blind, the lame, the lepers and the possessed. He lives like the homeless, saying, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt 8:20). Jesus tells the rich young man to give away all his possessions and to follow Him (Luke 18:22). He applauds the destitute widow who, even in her poverty, gives a penny to the Jewish treasury (Mark 12:42-44). Prior to Holy week, Jesus spends time in Bethany (from the Aramaic, meaning “The House of Poverty”). Jesus dies like a common criminal, stripped bare, beaten and hung on the Cross and watches the soldiers gamble for His robe, His one material possession (John 19:23-24).
There can be no denying that Jesus Christ embraces poverty and that “poverty” is one of the core messages in the Gospel; Jesus preaches a Gospel of Poverty. Jesus comes to “preach good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18). “Jesus shares the life of the poor, from the cradle to the cross, He experiences hunger, thirst and privation” (CCC 544).
Jesus Christ, in His Divine Genius, identifies and becomes the very embodiment of His Gospel message through His embrace of poverty.
What Jesus Teaches – The Point of His Poverty
How do we reconcile the great abundance of life that Jesus promises with His purposeful embrace of poverty?
The definition of poverty – Poverty comes from the Latin, pauper “poor,” perhaps a compound of paucus “little” and parare “to get”. In the Beatitudes, the word “poor” comes from the Aramaic word ányâ (or Hebrew ani) meaning, “bent down, afflicted, miserable”. Those in poverty get little, are bent down, afflicted and miserable.
Mankind must realize its complete dependence on God – The first words of Jesus’ first sermon (The Sermon on the Mount) are:“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:3). In this phrase, Jesus articulates both man’s helpless state and the foundational motivation that man must seek salvation. We are all paupers, “bent over”, “getting little” and “afflicted” in a life that is only material, for we all suffer pain, illness and eventually death. When we acknowledge “the spirit”, that we are more then material, we must also acknowledge that we are trivial paupers compared to our awesome God. Jesus teaches that those who accept that God exists and that all humans have a radical dependence on God, are the “poor in spirit”. In this realization of spiritual poverty, man opens himself up to the Salvation of Christ in the promise of heaven. “The kingdom belongs to the poor and lowly, which means those who have accepted it with their humble hearts” (CCC 544).
Idolizing wealth draws mankind away from God – Over and over, Jesus makes it clear that the idolization and pursuit of wealth leads to death. He teaches that, “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” (Matt 19:24). Christ teaches that we must “practice the virtue of temperance, so as to moderate attachment to the world’s goods” (CCC 2407). He tells us, “You cannot serve God and mammon” (Matt 6:24).
Jesus’ poverty inspires us to love the poor – In His complete embrace of poverty, Jesus Christ becomes poverty. “Jesus was born in a humble stable, into a poor family. Humble shepherds were the first witnesses to this event. In this poverty, heaven’s glory was made manifest” (CCC 525). He identifies with the poor, saying, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me” (Matt 25:45). “The Lord asks us to love as He does…and [to love] the poor as Christ Himself” (CCC 1825). We are to serve “the poor and suffering, in whom the Church recognizes the image of her poor and suffering founder” (CCC 786). Jesus teaches that all people, even the poorest of the poor, are worthy of respect and are worthy of love. If we are to love and follow Jesus Christ, we must love the poverty of Jesus Christ and we must love those whom Jesus Christ loved: the poor.
Jesus’ example of poverty prepares us to be disciples – In life, there is hardship and in being disciples we must be prepared for pain. Jesus teaches, “by His poverty He calls us to accept freely the privation and persecutions that may come our way” (CCC 520). “All Christ’s faithful are to live with the ‘spirit of evangelical poverty’” (CCC 2546). As the Body of the Christ, each of us in the Church are “urged on by the Spirit of Christ [and] must walk the road Christ himself walked, a way of poverty and obedience” (CCC852).
The words and acts of Jesus compel us to serve the poor – Jesus teaches in the Parable of the Sheep and Goats (Matt 25:32-46) that man’s ultimate fate is decided by how they respond to His call to serve the poor. “Those who hold goods for use and consumption should use them with moderation, reserving the better part for guest, for the sick and the poor.” (CCC 2405). “God blesses those who come to the aid of the poor and rebukes those who turn away from them.” (CCC 2443). But we must also seek to serve the poor, by meeting their spiritual starvation: “When the poor have the good news preached to them it is a sign of Christ’s presence.” (CCC 2443).
In poverty, all men are dependent on the Eucharist – The Eucharist is the source and summit of the Catholic faith (CCC 1324). At the core of Jesus’ genius of the Eucharist is the truth that all men are beggars, paupers, starving before God. In the Prodigal Son, the Prodigal, starving after wasting his inheritance and becoming a pauper competing with swine for food, returns to his father and a feast of the fatted calf (Luke 15:11-32). “The Eucharist commits us to the poor. To Receive in Truth the Body and Blood of Christ given up for us, we must recognize Christ in the poorest, his brethren.” (CCC 1397). All men are starving, hungry because of the emptiness of life without God. All men are spiritually in poverty, spiritually starving. All men need a Savior, all men need to be fed with bread from heaven. In the miracles of feeding the masses and in the establishing of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, Jesus drives home the point that all men are ultimately dependent on the Bread of Life for their salvation from spiritual desolation.