Thoughts On Evangelical Poverty

Luke Timothy Johnson ’76 Ph.D.

When trying to think through – for the sake of living out – what our faith in the Living God demands of us concerning our use of possessions, two interrelated errors can confuse our thought and distort our practice. The first error affects our way of thinking; the second limits the range of our thinking.

Before getting into the business of thinking theologically, though, I hope you and I can agree that what truly counts before God is not the slickness of our concepts or the smoothness of our arguments, but the purity of our intentions and the faithful obedience of our action, both of which can thrive without the assistance of theologians. Our thinking, therefore, ought always to be in touch with faith in practice: learning from the practice of the saints, and seeking to strengthen such practice among those called to be disciples of Jesus.

Problem-Solving Mentality

The first error is to think of possessions as a problem to be solved rather than as a mystery to be engaged. I borrow the distinction from Gabriel Marcel. Finding answers for problems requires detachment, analysis, calculation. A problem-solving mentality looks at Scripture, sees a variety of divergent directives, and selects (on whatever principle) one that is normative for all times and all circumstances, whether mendicancy, monastic community of goods, almsgiving, or working for the support of others.

The same mindset looks at the human condition, so filled with inequality of wealth and the misery of the destitute, and seeks a social program that will eliminate inequities and relieve suffering. The result of such an approach? Deep disagreement among Christians concerning how to read Scripture, and, correspondingly, a depressing lack of impact on social injustice or destitution.

Thinking of possessions as a mystery to be engaged may seem, at first, a cop-out, a deflection from a serious commitment to discipleship. But it is far from an avoidance. Such reflection leads to the heart of the matter and liberates us for authentically faithful action. Marcel reminds us that mystery pertains to the areas of human existence in which we are – body and spirit – inescapably involved and from which we cannot detach ourselves or treat “objectively” without distortion.

Human existence as somatic, as at once “being” and “having,” is a prime instance of such mystery – first of all, because we both “are” and “have” bodies! To engage the material realm in which we both claim ownership of things and claim being and worth, we need to employ not problem-solving techniques but the slow and infinitely demanding discipline of reflection and discernment.

Everyday Idolatry

Unless we can see how human claims concerning possessions are simultaneously fundamental responses to the Living God, we shall miss entirely how idolatry and faith subtly play out in daily life – the idolatry of human acquisitiveness and oppression of the weak, as well as the miracle of generous giving that expresses the obedience of faith. Similarly, when we approach Scripture as more than a set of problems, we seek not a universal interpretation or mandate, but wisdom to discern the constant call of God and the ways in which the acquiring and disposing of possessions are always poised to tilt either toward idolatry or faith.

Reading through Torah and Prophets and Wisdom with such expectation, and reading through the Gospels and Paul and James, we find a remarkable consistency concerning the misuse of the gifts God provides. Everywhere, Scripture condemns avarice, stealing, coveting, cheating, and oppression as the expression of idolatry. Indeed, Scripture shows that faith in the Living God demands the sharing of possessions. Yet the variety of ways in which possessions can be shared is not regarded as a stumbling block, but as a pointer to alternative expressions of faith appropriate for diverse circumstances.

Mystery and Discernment

When we focus on the New Testament as a guide to discipleship, moreover, we quickly discover that there is no basis whatever for what is called “the prosperity gospel.” Rather, the Gospels summon us to a radical and evangelical poverty expressed through many and diverse forms of sharing, forms determined not by the projects of the donor but by the specific needs of others. The obedience of faith – and therefore of faithful giving – requires constant discernment of the mysterious movements of the embodied spirit: our own, that of others, and within and among them, of God.

The second error is to limit the issue of faithful sharing to material possessions alone. Patterns of idolatrous clinging and faithful generosity apply equally to all the expressions of our embodied selves. We can as much grasp after and cling to our reputation for virtue as we can our creature comforts. We can empty our bank account for good causes, yet continue to cultivate envy and competition in our heart. As a former monk, I can testify that eschewing private ownership and joining a community of possessions can have little effect on subtler forms of possessiveness and self-interest.

Paying Attention

The poverty of Jesus, we remember, had little to do with his lack of material comfort or support, and had everything to do with his self-emptying service to others, expressed day by day in his remarkable accessibility and his attentiveness to what was needed by those he encountered (here, reread Mark 6:30- 44), and expressed finally by the giving of his body and blood for the life of the world. The poverty that is demanded by discipleship, I think, must imitate that of Christ as we are enabled by the power of his Holy Spirit.

Our relinquishment of ownership and our faithful giving require of us a constant accessibility to others and an attentiveness of what they need in this moment. Otherwise our sharing is in danger of being our own (possibly idolatrous) project rather than a faithful response to God’s call. Faithful sharing is always attentive to specific and changing needs: This child needs comfort and that one needs correction, or this single child requires correction one moment and comfort the next! My neighbor in this hour needs a share in my space, and at another hour needs a moment of my time. Now my friend requires my patience and now my energy. Now my students need my severity and now my humor, and always my energy and enthusiasm.

Unless we exercise the asceticism of attentiveness, we will not know what is asked of us in this moment, and therefore what and how God is calling us to share. But the cost of such consistent attentiveness to the needs of others is clearly more than the cost of writing an annual check, or of providing for our neighbors what we are sure is good for them, because it seems good to us. The cost is the painful transformation into evangelical poverty, which is, in the end, the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16).

Luke Timothy Johnson ’76 Ph.D. is Robert W. Woodruff Professor Emeritus at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. He is the author of 31 books, including The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation (Fortress, third edition, 2010) and The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels (HarperOne, 1996). He taught at YDS from 1976-82.