Friday, December 10, 2010

What is our obligation to the poor?

What are the major driving forces in life? What motivates people to do what they do?

I can think of several. I believe Freud limited it to 'power' and 'sex', but I think that tells you more about him, then about the general populace. I believe that hope, love, pride, anger, selfishness, greed, justice, vanity.... and I could go on... are major driving forces. But I want to suggest that the biggest driving force for Christians in our society is comfort.

Now which one do you think God thinks it should be?

"Seek first the kingdom" "Make love your aim".

(Incidentally, if you consider that we are intended to make love our aim, and not comfort, it makes a lot more sense out of why a good God would allow suffering.)

What I am proposing is a hard message. I think it is harder and more imperative than the Churches teaching on birth control. Orthodox Catholics love to give convicting messages about birth control, but I can't figure out why Orthodox Catholics are essentially skipping this message.

Just as some of us are called to celibacy, but all are called to chastity, so some of us are called to holy poverty, but all are called to simplicity.

Orthodox Catholics, or Evangelical Catholics, if you like, love to go around saying "We are all called to be saints" and "JOY is an acronym for Jesus, Others, yourself" and "I am third", but let's be honest. When I spend $20 on a luxury for myself, while other people in the world starve, and that $20 would feed them for 20 days... who am I putting first?

Am I making love my aim?

I say that Christians put comfort before love because we all want to retire in a nice house with nice stuff, and the freedom to go on nice vacations, and the majority of the major decisions we make are directed towards those things. When we do consider the need to be charitable, we think of those who are close, how we should be patient with irritating people, and buy our rich family members nice gifts, etc. Of course, charity starts at home... but it should not end there. The world is a global community now. I have the means to help people in Burkina Faso- which means that people in Burkina Faso are my neighbors!


Some people argue that giving to charity only enables them to be dependent, reinforcing a welfare state. Fine, than give intelligently. Make micro loans, or build a school or a water treatment plant or something. We all know that it is only because of imperialism that we are so rich anyway, and we continue to live off the fruits of others unpaid labour. I'm not talking about boycotting Walmart or Nike or only buying fair trade coffee. Let's get real. The only thing that is going to break the cycle is if we stop being consumers who never put restrictions on their consumption! We need to stop making excuses, and start coming up with solutions, starting with taking seriously the importance of putting others before ourselves.

I am so convicted of this, and there are so many quotes from the Bible and Church Teaching that support my views. (In fact, I bet no one can find as many quotes from scripture advocating chastity as I could advocating simplicity and justice... which are the same thing.) I'll tack a bunch of quotes on at the end of this, in case you think I am taking it all out of context.

What I can't figure out is why so many other Church leaders- priests and evangelists and lay missionaries- not only seem to be not on board with this, but argue against it! I can only think of one decent argument against my conviction- and that is that if it were true, there would be a papal encyclical saying so.

Well, maybe you know of one that I don't.

I am not proposing that we never spend $20 on another luxury. I am suggesting that we put a cap on it. I would like to suggest a rather generous $100/month. (That's what Catherine and I have decided on.) You may choose to quickly point out my hypocrisy, that I spend on unnecessary luxuries on average each day enough to feed 3 children in Africa. But it's kinda like prayer, or any other matter of conversion. If you go for perfection right off the start, you're liable to get discouraged and give up.

$100/month is a lot... and it's not. If I want to spend it all on fast food and movies- then it's a lot. But if I want a new computer, or car, or clothes, or an instrument, or a vacation, or a cell phone, or to renovate my house... and I don't need it... therefore it's a luxury... well, you get the picture.

I used to do a lot of apologetics, and one of my protestant friends, if he wanted to 'agree to disagree', would always say 'well, it's not a salvation issue'. Don't drop these arguments- I think they might be a salvation issue. In Matthew 25, Jesus separated the goats from the sheep- that is the damned from the saved- by asking "did you feed me, did you give me drink, did you give me clothes".

Here's an interesting side note- The etymology of the word Luxury goes back to the 14th century, and it meant "lasciviousness, sinful self-indulgence".

Pray about it- I'd be very interested to receive comments and feedback and refutations.

Here are the quotes I mentioned!

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Luke 16:13)

For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. (1 Tim 6:10)

Lazarus and the rich man- please note that the rich man was damned for not doing anything, but living in comfort- (Luke 16)

Jesus' apparent disdain for people who tithe, but give out of their abundance rather than sacrificially. (Luke 20:45-21:4)

Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mat 19:24)

"What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, "Depart in peace, be warmed and filled," but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (James 2:14-15)

There are plenty more... for fun, run a search on the word 'money' in a bible search website, and see for yourself. In particular, there are many exhortations in the New Testament against "lovers of money", and in the old Testament it appears that a major part of the reason that Israel broke the covenant over and over was not just idolatry, but actually structural injustices- (consider Ezekiel 34). Homilies on this subject are usually along the lines of warnings about too much attachment to money, but let's consider. If you had two children, and one of them starved while the other ate luxurious foods and went on vacations and bought fancy cars- and the latter said "Yes, but I was not too much attached to money..." what would you think?

If I were God, I would be extremely angry. I would say, that the latter loved money more than the life of their brother or sister.

Lastly- some quotes from the Catechism and other Church Documents, some of which are in turn from saints and Popes. Most of these quotes come from the Catechism section "thou shalt not steal"-

2439 Rich nations have a grave moral responsibility toward those which are unable to ensure the means of their development by themselves or have been prevented from doing so by tragic historical events. It is a duty in solidarity and charity; it is also an obligation in justice if the prosperity of the rich nations has come from resources that have not been paid for fairly.

2445 Love for the poor is incompatible with immoderate love of riches or their selfish use:
Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Behold, 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. You have condemned, you have killed the righteous man; he does not resist you.

2446 St. John Chrysostom vigorously recalls this: "Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs."

"The demands of justice must be satisfied first of all; that which is already due in justice is not to be offered as a gift of charity' (Vatican II)

When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice. (Pope Gregory the Great)

“Charity will never be true charity unless it takes justice into account.... Let no one attempt with small gifts of charity to exempt himself from the great duties imposed by justice” (Pius XI, 1937, Divini Redemptoris, No. 49).

Works of charity…are in effect a way for the rich to shirk their obligation to work for justice and [are] a means of soothing their consciences while preserving their own status and robbing the poor of their rights. Instead of contributing through individual works of charity to maintaining the status quo, we need to build a just social order in which all receive their share of the world’s goods and no longer have to depend on charity. (Benedict XVI- God is Love)

"The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry man; the coat hanging unused in your closet belongs to the man who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the man who has no shoes; the money which you put in the bank belongs to the poor. You do wrong to everyone you could help, but fail to help." (St. Basil the Great)


  1. This is my moms response-

    This is a challenging topic to be sure; it is one that St Francis of Assisi struggled with as his community grew and with it the logistics of answering his call to “Lady Poverty” and the very real problem of being therefore dependent on the generosity of others to sustain his life style and the charism of his community of brothers.
    I believe that certain questions need to be asked as people discover for themselves and discern what a Godly call to simplicity means for each individual case.
    Who's welfare are they responsible for and what are the requirements?
    How do they propose to meet these requirements – will it be by their own efforts to bring in income or will the needs or some portion of them be born by others?
    Will uncertainty and instability be an acceptable way of life in that they depend day to day on the Lord's provision as many missions and outreaches do?
    Are there dependents who are helpless to influence their own life's stability and security?
    Is the simplicity in stark contrast to the material standards of most people of modest means around them?
    Is everyone involved in the community/family in agreement that they share this vision? Sometimes resentment can occur if some feel compelled by others to do without means that seem “normal” to them. This is why organizations like World Vision are careful not to to raise the standard of living for one community far above the working “normal” standards for the areas they serve.
    The call to poverty is a particular call from God that is a powerful sign to the world – this call however is generally accepted to be a call for consenting adults and is usually is part of a vow attached to the single or consecrated, and celibate state.
    For this reason men or women approaching the Church for discernment to consecrated life who have material responsibilities to others are not accepted until they are completely free of them.
    Even orders of priests, brothers, nuns, and sisters must carefully discern their calls to poverty or simplicity so that their needs are adequately met and undue reliance on the generosity of others does not place heavy burden on the community.
    There is a place in the world for the creation of wealth, jobs, and material goods. The generosity of the wealthy is often the means through which the will of God is accomplished. The families of the world rely on income to house, clothe, feed, care for and educate their children. The missions and works for the poor and needy would dry up without benefactors. Buildings and institutions need to be built in ways that are sturdy enough to stand the test of elements and time. Human beings also have a need for aesthetics so that they can create a place of beauty and order to live, work, worship, and play in.
    People are called also to stewardship so that the things that support their lives remain in good repair and wholesome in cleanliness and order.
    (to be cont'd)

  2. (cont'd from previous comment)
    People who are struggling with poverty long for the dignity of security, work, and seeing that their family's needs are met. The humiliation of being in need of charity from others is demoralizing and an offense to them.
    People who willingly chose simplicity must discern that they are meeting their responsibilities, not putting undue burdens on those who are drawn into this simplicity because of their dependence, that they are not in debt to institutions or individuals, and that they do not presume that others should support them materially in their choices.
    There are times in life when people begin to suffer with poverty fatigue – the energy and vision they once had for sacrificing for the higher ideal can become a source of frustration and even shame for them if they have not managed it carefully. As people get older and their frailty sets in they may find that they are at their children's door in need and that their children, in the processes of providing for their own families and needs are hard put to provide for yet another person. Parents of adult children may feel that they would like to assist them as they start out their lives and find that they are unable to. The needs of a young family are easily met as children need only to know that their parents are there for them and that food, shelter, clothing, and medicine is available for them. As they get older and the greater needs for education, friends, and a place in the world for themselves asserts itself they can be truly disadvantaged by lack of provision by their parents. The needs of a large family are very complex and require a great deal from the parents in housing, food, clothing, education, and opportunities. What may be the calling for parents of large families is a complexity of material things coupled with austerity in personal time for sleep, leisure, development of talents/interests, and social lives and friendships – everything is put at the service of the family.
    Just as the Church has clear teaching on openness to life without proposing definitive family sizes, she also has clear teaching on the justice of giving to the needy and guarding against materialism and undo attachment to goods. These matters are left to the individual to discern according to their state in life; the encouragement of the Church is always to err on the side of generosity, while being attentive to the prompting of the Holy Spirit in matters of prudence, wisdom, and right judgment. As followers of Christ we must also take care to respect the decisions of others in these matters – often there are realities that couples or leaders face that are unknown to those on the outside that cause them to take the courses of action they choose. Particularly married couples must prayerfully come to agreement on what is best for their own families because simplicity will be very different from one family to another because of family size, ages of children, needs, extended family, outside commitments, and so on.
    There is no quick easy answer, but we can live in fidelity to our call to simplicity and we can change our ways of simplicity as circumstances demand.
    Teresa van Kampen