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.”