The true meaning of poverty

By Eric Gehlhausen

“For us Christians, poverty is not a sociological, philosophical or cultural category. No, it is a theological category. I would say, perhaps the first category, because God, the Son of God, abased Himself, made Himself poor to walk with us on the road. And this is our poverty: the poverty of the flesh of Christ, the poverty that the Son of God brought us with His Incarnation. A poor Church for the poor begins by going to the flesh of Christ. If we go to the flesh of Christ, we begin to understand something, to understand what this poverty is, the poverty of the Lord.”

— Pope Francis, during a Q & A on the vigil of Pentecost

The idea of poverty goes much deeper than just material poverty, but also to spiritual poverty. As Pope Francis explains above, we see that poverty of the spirit is where all poverty begins; and we must recognize that to fully understand what material poverty is, we must discover the true meaning of spiritual poverty.

The best and most appropriate place to begin is by looking to the Incarnation of Christ, where Christ gladly took the form of a human and sacrificed Himself for humanity by dying on the Cross. Christ, in His fully human nature, denied His divinity many times throughout the scriptures. For example, when Christ was in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights, He relied entirely on God to give Him the strength to fight the temptations of sin. The devil tempted Him by saying that if He were to throw Himself down from the mountains, then the angels would catch Him; and knowing that Christ was hungry, the devil tempted Him by saying that He could change the rocks into bread. It was in these moments that we see Christ denying His divinity because we know full well that Christ could have thrown Himself down and the angels would have caught Him or that He could have changed the rocks into bread to eat. Instead, in all of this, He clung to His humanity and relied wholly on God to give Him the strength to fight the temptations of sins.

Johannes Metz writes in his book “Poverty of Spirit” that, “To become human means to have no support and no power . . . Jesus held back nothing; He clung to nothing, and nothing served as a shield for Him.” When we think back to the temptations in the desert, we can see that the devil is appealing to the divinity of Christ by commanding the angels to catch Him or to feed Himself. Rather, Christ throws Himself down at the feet of God and asks Him for the strength and guidance to hold on to His humanity and avoid sin.

The word that comes to my mind to help fully understand this concept is humility. It is the act of clinging to our poor and broken human nature and calling out to God that helps us better understand the poverty of spirit. When we become more aware of our weak and helpless human nature, the more we become aware of our dependence on Christ. It is through this concept that one truly understands John 12:24-25:

“Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.”

We begin to see that once we become entirely dependent upon Christ, the more we begin to die to our sinful and human ways of life, i.e., we become the wheat that produces much fruit. We are allowing Christ to live in us and our everyday life, and soon after we begin to see all the fruits of Christ. Metz summarizes this point the best when he writes, “Only through poverty of spirit do we draw near to God; only through it does God draw near to us . . .” When we begin to step out of the way, becoming dependent upon Christ and clinging to our poverty, do we honestly let Christ draw near to us and work through us?

This dependence on Christ is where material poverty can begin. In our world today, we look at material poverty as a horrible thing. Now, do not get me wrong; we should help our brothers and sisters who live in poverty and have nothing. In Matthew 25:42-45 Christ tells us that we must give and serve the hungry, thirsty, naked, ill and imnprisoned. He goes on to say that whatever we do not do for the least of these we do not do for Him. Therefore, there is great importance in serving those around us.

However, in Luke 12:33 we see Jesus telling the disciples that they need to rely entirely on the Lord, and that they should, “Sell their belongings and give alms. Provide money bags for yourselves that do not wear out, an inexhaustible treasure in heaven that no thief can reach, nor moth destroy.” This is where we see our true call to material poverty and if we remain faithful the treasures of heaven will forever be ours. While this is a very challenging concept and process to follow through on, we see that if we are wholly dependent upon Christ, whether that be in our material or spiritual poverty we shall always be taken care of.

If we can part with our material goods and give to the poor and those that are in need then Christ will reward us in Heaven. Overall, we are all called to live a life of poverty whether that be spiritual or material poverty. We can find teaching within the scriptures, specifically 1 Timothy 6:7-8, “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.”

We are called to serve those around us, whether that be through feeding the hungry, painting houses, building wheelchair ramps, assisting at food banks or praying for others. We are not only called to serve them and ‘do our time,’ but instead to love them unconditionally, as our Father loves us. We must meet them where they are and treat them as our brothers and sisters.

“But I am poor like all the poor.”

— Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati

Gehlhausen works with director Christine Hoehn at the University of Southern Indiana Newman Center.