“the [Good News] about poverty in the kingdom”

Here is another response I wrote to a friend from yesterday’s email conversation:

First of all, let me just say that I feel a little embarrassed “preaching” about Jesus’ call to poverty and dependence on God because I still have a great deal to learn about it myself. That said, I do have some experience with poverty/dependence and also with learning about Jesus’ difficult economic teachings in the Bible. So I’ll give it my best to respond to the comment you mentioned at the end (“the Bible puts more emphasis on extreme giving than it does on choosing to live as poor”).

You are right that Jesus emphasizes “extreme giving” and the list of Biblical quotes that Compassion put together makes that point pretty well. However, as much as I see the good in simply sharing what we have, especially in selling all and giving to the poor, generosity without Jesus’ overall context of weakness and vulnerability does not necessarily help someone understand the life he lived. Hopefully, you and I can see the full impact. I’m not sure an organization (even a good one like Compassion) really gets it.

Jesus taught his followers in general to become poor (and to stay in that place of vulnerability) in order to become more spiritually rich and to avoid the stress and burden that comes from wealth (Luke 22:22-34). He also directed his followers to endure attack and persecution without shame or retaliation and to refuse to take up power to ensure that others do the right thing. In Luke, Jesus warned the twelve about wielding power over others. Ironically, this came right before he allowed his own betrayal and arrest:

The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves. (Luke 22:24-27)

Jesus and his disciples notably did not form a charity in order to demonstrate their faith or help people with their great economic problems. He did feed the crowds, but then refused to keep on giving in that way (“Do not labor for the food that perishes…” John 6:27). He demonstrated a way of life that required personal contact, repentance, and faith. This would be impossible for a charitable organization to make happen (imagine the absurdity of developing services for people with the requirement being Jesus’ vulnerability and love).

We are told through Paul that Jesus “made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:7). And yet we are encouraged by charitable groups, communities, and even sometimes churches to make generous donations in order to preserve our somethingness (relevance?) to the world. I can affirm good work (and have supported Compassion for the last 6 years). But it’s hard to imagine an organization encouraging its members to give their life away as humble servants (without thought of keeping their own authority and power) (see Matt 20:25-28).

Perhaps my favorite examples in the Gospels about poverty in the kingdom come from (1) Jesus’ instructions to the twelve as he sent them out as well as (2) the profound truth he affirmed in the poor widow who gave all she had. These examples, and my own desire to live them out, have made me more and more willing to give up my stuff and fall into God’s care through economic dependence and faith:

And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without pay. Acquire no gold nor silver nor copper for your belts, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics nor sandals nor a staff, for the laborer deserves his food. (Matthew 10:8-9)


Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box, and he saw a poor widow put in two small coins. And he said, “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” (Luke 21:1-4)

To summarize, Jesus himself demonstrates what humility and lowliness really looks like. And we, too, can become humble like he was. Following Jesus means living like a dependent child with the care of God who loves us, much like other “nobodies” who need a defender and tangible help. In that way, we also become a sign for those who see the impossibility of doing the miraculous things Jesus taught: “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” (Mark 10:27) Even as a distant follower, we always have his promise and power available and alive, ready for us to respond: “For all things are possible with God.”


“the problem of theft and competition”

This is my part of a recent email conversation with a friend:

I think non-resistance is the way to go. And you have the right idea about the outcome (“what is not valued (possessions, wealth, position) can hardly truly be taken”). This was Jesus’ teaching as well:

 Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back…But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.  (Luke 6:30, 35-36)

Cooperatives and credit unions are good examples for us to consider, especially in our consumerist economy, but in my opinion they are only one shade of the complete picture. The real colors start to fill in when we truly “renounce everything,” like Jesus taught, and follow him. Maybe we too quickly forget that Jesus’ life really ended, and that He lost everything, due to unjust laws and unjust people. He is our example, and yet He did not physically resist those who intended to carry out an evil plan. Instead, He prayed to do the will of his Father. That should be our prayer as well, no matter what the circumstance.

This does not mean that Jesus became a “quietist” who stayed silent and withdrew from evil. The opposite is actually true: he was killed and hated for the things he said. The difference is that Jesus never tried to force the evil out of someone. He never used violence or some other threat of worldly coercion in order to overcome their evil intent. He trusted God to restrain evil and lived a completely free life in the midst of it, speaking fearlessly about the consequences of sin and of a real repentance that was possible.

One of my favorite passages in Luke offers Jesus’ response to the problem of theft and competition: “Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys.” (Luke 12:33) Greed cannot corrupt us and we will not be overcome by it, if we abandon ourselves into God’s hands like Jesus did.

In that sense, physical poverty may be the best path to a prayerful surrender of our will to God, who is able to protect and care for us much better than we ourselves would. I know my life often seems more complicated and a bit too murky to envision like that. But if Jesus is right (and my writing here accurately portrays him), to what extent are we doing what he said?