Gospel Poverty for the Rich
The Hard Sayings of the Gospel
What Gospel teachings won’t you hear about at a typical parish? Conservatives lament the lack of sermons addressing the worthy reception of the Eucharist and the evils of abortion. Progressives decry the lack of sermons on social justice and care for the poor.
I’ve heard sermons on abortion and on helping the poor, and I’ve heard plenty of “asking sermons” in which priests urge the faithful to support the parish with time, talent, and treasure. I’ve only heard one sermon, though, on the spiritual dangers of owning a lot of “treasure”. That sermon, I should add, was given by a visiting priest. He said that he could only speak on such a dangerous topic because he’d be gone by the morning!
The Gospels strongly emphasize voluntary poverty. The rich young ruler went away sad, because he would not give up his possessions. The rich man, unlike Lazarus, had his good things in this life and eternal fire in the afterlife. God called the man with his bulging barns a fool. The poor are blessed, according to Christ. The Pharisees, who loved money, sneered at God Incarnate.
The Misuse of a Teaching
In a wealthy and powerful country, the topic of Gospel poverty tends to be avoided. It might annoy the rich and cause them to leave the Church. Someone recently told me, however, that Gospel poverty is preached to the poor in the Global South. According to him, in poor countries poverty is preached to the poor and oppressed as a way to keep them subservient and to distract them from the injustice of their oppressors. I don’t know how common this misuse of the Gospel poverty concept is. What is certain is that it is a misuse.
Serving the Poor to the Point of Poverty
The path to heaven for the rich, the only way for them to fit through the needle, is to serve the poor. Such service has to go far beyond that asked by the time-talent-and-treasure sermons. In general, the rich are only too happy to give donations, so long as such giving doesn’t impede their lifestyles. They give of their surplus, not of their need, as Christ pointed out. Fr. Dubay, speaking of this, says:
“We may consider a concrete example. At Mass one Sunday morning in October a serious, deeply religious couple hear that the following week there is going to be a collection for the foreign missions. As they drive home Mrs. Jones is likely to say, “Bill, do you think we could afford something like $20 or $30 for this collection?” After some musing Mr. Jones may well respond that he, too, thinks they could afford that amount as their contribution. While most would indeed consider Mr. and Mrs. Jones a generous couple, we must note something significant. When both of them used the expression “we could afford”, they meant “without changing significantly our level of consumption.” They did not mean “we could afford $20 or $30 if we dine out less frequently or give up smoking or cocktails, or if we cancel our vacation trip, or sell one of our sports cars.”—Happy Are You Poor, pp. 84-85
While we might not consider ourselves “rich”, the average American is wealthy by world and historical standards. If we are able to spend money on unnecessary items, then we are wealthy by Gospel standards. St. Paul writes to Timothy “For we brought nothing into the world, just as we shall not be able to take anything out of it. If we have food and clothing, we shall be content with that.” (1 Timothy 6:7-8) The Church calls us to put the needs of those who lack food, clothing, and basic shelter ahead of our desires for recreation, amusement, and fashion.
If the “asking sermons” were really heeded, the rich would become poor. In the body, would the hand ornament itself while the foot bled to death? In the family, would a brother take an expensive vacation while his sister starved to death? This is the meaning of the parable of the unjust steward: the rich are to make friends for themselves with the mammon of iniquity. The rich are to give it to the poor, and it is the friendship of the poor that will get the rich into heaven.
Is this a Swap?
Wouldn’t such a giving away of wealth merely swap the conditions of the rich and poor? No, for two reasons. Practically, there are more poor than rich. Every wealthy individual who gives up a mansion could build many modest homes in the Third World, without making anybody wealthy. “There is enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for anyone’s greed.”
Theoretically speaking, such a “swap” isn’t desirable. From a Gospel perspective, wealth is undesirable, but so is destitution. Destitution is the lack of necessary goods and is bad for the soul just as it is bad for the body. We’re composite creatures, and damage to one part of ourselves is likely to reflect onto the other. The Christian ideal is that of Acts, where we see the rich selling what they have to give to the poor, and where “none of them lacked anything”.
Lifting the Poor out of Destitution
This highlights the folly of preaching Gospel poverty to the destitute. The poor, hungry and persecuted are indeed blessed. Why is this so? Because Jesus identifies himself with them. He lived among the poor, had nowhere to lay his head, and died on a cross. This identification means that as we treat the poor, so we treat Christ.
By all means, the Church should preach the dignity of the oppressed and poor—and the Church must warn their oppressors that eternal ruin may befall them if they do not recognize that dignity and act upon it.
Pontius Pilate was famously indifferent to the truth, and he refused to sacrifice his personal safety and ambitions to protect Truth himself in the guise of a poor, suffering Man before him. If Pilate had seen the face of God in the marginalized, he would have been a transfigured man. As it is, barring a last-minute conversion, we can suppose that his second face-to-face encounter with Christ was not a pleasant one.
The Interconnected Gospel
As it turns out, the neglected or misused topic of Gospel poverty has a close connection to the other “hard sayings” mentioned earlier, to social justice and abortion and the worthy reception of the Eucharist. Social justice without an embrace of Gospel poverty is a farce. The wealthy, merely by reason of their wealth, are unjust and oppressive. From the teaching of Church Fathers such as Basil the Great and John Chrysostom, through Thomas Aquinas and the medieval scholastics, right up to the teachings of Pope Francis and the Catechism of St. John Paul II, the Church has taught the universal destination of human goods. The surplus wealth of the rich belongs to the poor, not due to charity, but due to justice. Those who keep what belongs to another are unjust and commit the sin of theft.
This injustice makes the wealthy guilty of murder; they are responsible for the deaths of those whom they should have helped, including the many children aborted because their parents face economic hardship.
Such callousness to the life of others turns the Eucharist from the sacrament of life into the potential for damnation. St. Paul warns that those who receive unworthily eat and drink damnation upon themselves. What is not so well known is that this warning was given to a community which was not honoring the poor among them. In First Corinthians, St. Paul explains that our reception of the Eucharist makes us into one body in Christ. As members of the same body, we must care for one another.
The Epistle of James on Gospel Poverty
This Christian stance on wealth can be clearly seen in the following quotations from the Epistle of James: he calls the poor blessed, calls on the Church to feed and clothe them, and warns of the coming condemnation of the rich who do not aid the poor.
1:27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world . . .
2:1-6 My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court?
2:14-16 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?
5:1-5 Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.
For more on Gospel Poverty, see our outline of Fr. Dubay’s Happy Are You Poor.
Interview with the Alleluia Community
In this episode, Malcolm interviews Dan Almeter from the Alleluia Community in Augusta, Georgia. They discuss the history and growth of the community over time and its structure and spirituality. Dan also talks about his personal experience with Fr. Thomas Dubay and how Fr. Dubay influenced the community.
The Alleluia Community
The Alleluia Community started in 1973 in Augusta, Georgia. It grew out of a large Charismatic prayer group. A number of people in the group started meeting to discuss living the Christian life in a more intentional way, and out of this smaller group 12 members ultimately formed a covenant community. The group grew rapidly; today it has 700 members. The 12 founding members were all Catholics, but they discerned that they should become an ecumenical community. (In part, this was due to the fact that Catholics are such a small minority of the Christian population in Georgia.)
The ecumenical nature of the community has a lot of influence on its spirituality. There is a large focus on scripture, on personal daily prayer, on being open to the charisms of the Holy Spirit, and on enthusiastic worship. Contemplative prayer plays a large role in the community, in part through the influence of Fr. Thomas Dubay. There is also an emphasis on good interpersonal relationships and accountability.
The community has a leadership council of seven elders, who are elected by the community and serve for life. They are assisted by a complementary leadership council of women. In addition to this, there are numerous small group leaders and other leadership positions. Before an individual can become a vowed member of the community, there is a two year postulancy.
The members of the Alleluia Community serve those in the local area in a number of different ways. Members are free to start their own initiatives which are then supported by other members. Many service projects have started this way. They include:
- A food bank with multiple locations across half the state
- A city wide soup kitchen at different local churches
- Prison ministry
- Service at local churches
- Street evangelization
- Prayer and healing ministries
- Pro-Life work
- Ecumenical organizing at both a local and an international level
- And a spiritual direction training program
Relationship of the Alleluia Community to Local Churches
Dan emphasized that the Alleluia Community does not compete with local churches; instead, the community serves local churches. One requirement for membership is that an individual has to be a member in good standing with a local church. Local pastors appreciate this, since the community is not pulling members away from their congregations. There are many priests and protestant pastors in the community, each of whom serves their wider religious congregation.
Communal Economics and The Family
Dan explained that the community started out owning everything in common. They pooled their funds and bought a run-down set of apartments in a rough area of town. Over time, however, owning everything in common became unwieldy as the community grew. It also infringed on subsidiarity and the rights of parents. Under the original scheme, a father who wanted to buy anything for his children had to apply to a central committee. The community members now own their houses individually. They still contribute 10% of their incomes to the community fund, however, and 6% to run the community school. Most of the members also still live in the same geographic area.
We noted that very few Christian communities manage to hold everything in common while still allowing families to be full members. A notable exception to this dynamic is the Bruderhof. Dan commented that this may be possible for them because they collectively own their own means of production.
(For more information on the Bruderhof, see our recent interview with some Bruderhof members here.)
Ecumenism and Unity in the Alleluia Community
The Alleluia Community is ecumenical, and is enriched by the diversity of spiritual perspectives among the members. We discussed the importance of unity among Christians. While unity on doctrinal issues may be important, unity in love and serving the Lord is more important and has to come before any progress can be made on doctrinal issues. At the Alleluia Community, the members don’t try to resolve their doctrinal differences. Instead, they focus on relating to one another with love and respect.
Father Thomas Dubay and The Alleluia Community
Father Thomas Dubay influenced the founders of the Alleluia Community, who read his book Caring, a Biblical perspective on Community. Later, Fr. Dubay became Dan’s spiritual director, and Dan started a study group within the community to read Fr. Dubay’s writings on contemplative prayer. Dan shared stories of his personal interactions with Fr. Dubay and we briefly discussed some of Fr. Dubay’s books, including Happy Are You Poor.
Community and the Christian Life
Community is necessary for the Christian life; without a community one can’t advance in sanctity. Those we live with “rub against us” and show us our weaknesses and imperfections, but they can also build us up with their strengths. A community also makes it possible to evangelize, which is an integral part of a Christian life.
Authority in Community
Those in positions of authority in a community should see themselves as servants, helping and serving the other members of a community. Further, they only have authority insofar as they’ve been given authority. Community leaders can call members to live up to the agreements and commitments they have made. That doesn’t give them authority over other areas of the member’s lives.
Advice for Starting Out
Dan gave a few pieces of advice for those trying to start a Christian community.
- Don’t reinvent the wheel! There are established communities out there that have already made all the mistakes and figured out what works. You don’t have to make the same mistakes again.
- Move from less intentional to more intentional. The Alleluia Community started from a large prayer group; similar large, low-commitment groups can help to find like-minded individuals to build community with.
- Be clear about your vision. If the vision isn’t stated clearly and thoroughly understood and shared by those trying to build a community, there will be trouble down the road.
For More Information:
Why this website is not “Liberal” or “Conservative”
“Small minds pit truth against truth, large minds do not.”—Fr. Dubay, in “Happy Are You Poor”
As we discussed in our last podcast episode, cult members tend to see all outsiders as malevolent and untrustworthy. The cult sees itself as fundamentally righteous, and therefore above criticism. Such thinking produces hate and fear directed at outsiders. It also produces blindness to any problems within the group, or within the individuals who make it up.
In a subtler form, this mentality is the constant temptation of the devout Christian. It is the fault of the Pharisee who “thanked God he was not like other men.” The devout are tempted to fixate on the obvious moral failings of “inferior” outsiders, while ignoring their own more subtle sins of pride, rash judgment, and envy. It is always tempting to ignore our own flaws by focusing on those of others.
In the United States today, both of the major political parties have developed this cult-like, pharisaic attitude. Increasingly, the members of both parties see their opponents not merely as mistaken, but as maliciously bent on destroying the country. As with any cult, this fixation on the “evil outsiders” makes party members increasingly unlikely to see internal flaws.
When Christians are drawn into the cult-like world of political ideology, it increases their danger of becoming Pharisees. A conservative friend was lamenting the lack of “really good sermons.” As our conversation progressed, it became clear that in his mind, a “really good sermon” was one focused on abortion or homosexuality; in other words, a sermon that challenged those he saw as outsiders but did not challenge him. Of course, there is a liberal counterpart to this, which laments the fact that sermons aren’t aimed at xenophobia or greed. Political ideologies have divided Christians into opposing groups, each of which sees Christianity as being primarily about defeating “the other guys” instead of about a loving and humble relationship with God and our neighbors.
Both political parties are corrupting because they are “totalitarian.” Just as nothing in a cult member’s life is separate from the cult, political ideologies are increasingly affecting every area of life, from healthcare to education. Religion is no exception. Political platforms often determine the stances that Christians take. This is a serious problem, as the letter to the Hebrews warns us: “Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teaching.” The Christian message does not align with either of the major political parties.
Political ideology contrasted with the Gospel
Jesus tells us: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.” Is this the message of any political leaders today? Do they not rather encourage their followers to seek revenge, to hate opponents, and wish for their downfall? Don’t they encourage a fixation getting what is owed us?
Jesus tells us: “Happy are you poor”; and “It will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Is this the message of either political party today? Or do they rather hold out promises of ever-increasing material wealth to those who vote for them?
Jesus tells us: “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” Do our political parties encourage us to become angry, to call our brothers and sisters fools… and worse?
Before his Passion, Christ prayed that we might be one as he and the Father are one. Our political parties, on the other hand, produce division; it is their basic strategy, just as it is the basic strategy of the cult.
St. James tells us: “Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.” Jesus tells us that the sheep and the goats will be divided depending on how they served the poor. Yet Jesus also tells us: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Neither of our major political parties upholds both social justice and the sanctity of marriage.
The Gospel message can’t be divided up. Christians can’t pick and choose the truths they accept, but this is what both political parties want us to do. C. S. Lewis said, “The devil always sends errors into the world in pairs—pairs of opposites. And he always encourages us to spend a lot of time thinking which is the worse. You see why, of course? He relies on your extra dislike of the one error to draw you gradually into the opposite one.”
We can’t let ideology warp our understanding of the Gospel. Instead, we must “be transformed by the renewal of our minds, so that we may discern what is the will of God, what is good and perfect and true.”
This website strives to serve this renewal by providing a place where those with different viewpoints can interact in friendship. Please join our mission, and pray for unity among Christians.
Prayer from Fratelli Tutti
O God, Trinity of love, from the profound communion of your divine life, pour out upon us a torrent of fraternal love. Grant us the love reflected in the actions of Jesus, in his family of Nazareth, and in the early Christian community. Grant that we Christians may live the Gospel, discovering Christ in each human being, recognizing him crucified in the sufferings of the abandoned and forgotten of our world, and risen in each brother or sister who makes a new start. Come, Holy Spirit, show us your beauty, reflected in all the peoples of the earth, so that we may discover anew that all are important and all are necessary, different faces of the one humanity that God so loves. Amen.
Podcast 3: Voluntary Poverty
Peter Land and Malcolm Schluenderfritz are joined by Jason Wilde, a lay missionary with the Catholic Family Missions Company. They discuss voluntary Gospel poverty, and in particular the role of voluntary poverty in our relationships with God and neighbor.
Topics covered include: the nature of voluntary poverty; the difference between poverty and destitution; the individual, personal nature of a call to embrace a simpler lifestyle; Fr. Dubay’s Happy are You Poor; the need for individual discernment in responding to this call; the experience of the podcast participants with poverty; the many different types of poverty in the world today; Fratelli Tutti; finding pleasure in the simple things; finding happiness in Divine and human relationships; the importance of serving the poor; the importance of solidarity with the poor; Christ’s “solidarity” with humanity; the Mystical Body; the recurrent danger in the life of the Church of rejecting either the Humanity or the Divinity of Christ; the lack of security, both physical and spiritual, in today’s world; the difference between individual security and communal security from the perspective of the Gospel; and the relative affluence of most Americans when measured against other times and places.
(All transcripts edited for clarity and readability.)
Header image: Caravaggio, Calling of St. Matthew. Photo by Steven Zucker CC BY-NC-SA 2.0