“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” There is a great difference between being materially poor and being poor in spirit. All people, both rich and poor, are called to be poor in spirit. For rich and poor alike, the question of how to exercise this virtue concretely is perennial. But for the wealthy, the question is more acute. While material poverty is by no means a prerequisite for spiritual poverty, the question of being poor in spirit is not disconnected from property, money, and material goods. How can the wealthy, living in the lap of comfort and luxury, truly be poor in spirit? Or put another way: What are the wealthy to do with their extra money if they are to be poor in spirit?
It is a concern with the first beatitude that Mr. Garrett Meyer sought to address in his Crisis article “The Impoverished Theological Vision of Dave Ramsey.” Concerning what one should do with extra money, Mr. Meyer writes, “Ramsey [in his book, The Legacy Journey] gives four answers: invest most in the market, give a small proportion away, pass a huge sum to your family in a will, but most importantly, enjoy it on earth.” Contra Ramsey, Meyer asserts, “Jesus, however, gives the exact opposite answers: invest some in your friends, give most to the poor, pass on good gifts to your family, and repent, for the rich have already received their reward.” Whether or not Ramsey gives sound Christian advice about wealth, Mr. Meyer’s correction perhaps presents a problematic understanding of being poor in spirit.
Mr. Meyer asserts that “Jesus counsels spending money to make friends (Luke 16:19). The poorer your friend, the better, since he will love you more the greater price you pay (Luke 7:41-43).” Luke 16:19 is the story of the rich man and Lazarus. This is not about spending money to make friends. Luke 7:41-43 is about creditors forgiving debts. The relief and gratitude of one whose debts are forgiven will certainly elicit their good will toward the one who forgave their debt—and the greater the debt forgiven the greater will be their affection of heart—but this is not friendship. Friendship, being a form of love, cannot be purchased, though the generosity exchanged between friends can nourish mutual affection.
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On giving most of our wealth to the poor, Mr. Meyer seems to take Jesus’ statement in Matthew 19:21 as a “financial order” to the wealthy. When a rich man asks Jesus what he must do to have eternal life, Jesus gives him two answers. He first tells him to “keep the commandments.” It is only after the rich man presses Him further that Jesus gives the second answer: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21).
The first answer—keep the commandments—is sufficient to gain eternal life and is applicable to rich and poor alike. The second answer, rather than a general financial order or one specifically for the rich, is particularly for those who wish to be perfect: those called to a particular way of life that entails leaving their lives in the world. For those not called to that narrower way, it is possible to store treasure in Heaven while possessing treasure on earth (cf. Matthew 6:19-21). Jesus’ teaching against storing up treasure on earth is a call to liberality, generosity, and charity; it is a call against hoarding and covetousness but not against possession.
Concerning this, St. Francis de Sales said of the wealthy:
Deprive yourself frequently of some part of your property by bestowing it with a willing heart upon the poor…
If you love the poor, be often in their company, be glad to see them in your house, and to visit them in theirs. Converse willingly with them, be pleased to have them near you in the church, in the streets, and elsewhere. Be poor in conversing with them, speaking to them as their companions; but be rich in assisting, by sharing some of your more abundant goods with them….
Do not content yourself to be poor like the poor, but be poorer than the poor themselves. How may this be effected? The servant is less than his master; make yourself, therefore, a servant to the poor; go and serve them in their beds when they are sick; serve them, I say, with your own hands; prepare their food for them yourself, and at your own expense; be their seamstress and laundress. (Introduction to the Devout Life 3.15)
St. Francis de Sales does not say to give most to the poor. He says to give “some part of your property” and “sharing some of your more abundant goods.” He exhorts to be generous in time, material, money, and energy in service to the poor. Dave Ramsey speaks of a friend who was vilified for purchasing a $130,000 car. But this same friend also gave $500 million in charitable donations. While those of lesser means are neither able to purchase a luxury car nor give such vast sums of money and property, Ramsey’s friend becomes a mirror in which we may ask ourselves how our own giving compares to what we spend on ourselves.
In his interpretation of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), Mr. Meyer states that “luxury stayed the rich man’s hand from helping the wretched Lazarus on earth.” It was not luxury that stayed the rich man’s hand; it was his hardness of heart. This is emphasized in that he did not listen to Moses and the prophets. He failed to keep the commandments as Jesus instructed for gaining eternal life. Like everyone else, for the wealthy to be poor in spirit they must keep the commandments, most especially to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 19:19).
Regarding passing on good gifts to your family, Mr. Meyer exhorts parents to do many good things that are of far greater importance than the size of one’s inheritance. None of these, however, are in opposition to Ramsey’s financial advice of giving a large inheritance to your family in a will.
Being poor in spirit requires the virtue of detachment. The generosity in forgiving debts, bountifully giving to friends, bestowing part of your wealth to the poor, and the giving of one’s self to family characterizes detachment. But can one be detached and spiritually poor if at the same time they enjoy their wealth? God did not simply make things useful; in His wisdom He made them enjoyable. Food is good in that it gives sustenance but also in its delighting the senses. Sex is good in its unifying and procreating but also in its physical pleasure. Like God, we do not make things merely to be useful but also to be enjoyed. The question is not whether or not one should enjoy the good things one has—be it the good things of the wealthy or the good things of the poor. The question is: What is a right and proper enjoyment of one’s goods?
Returning to the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man certainly enjoyed the things of his wealth. It was part of his condemnation that he enjoyed the comfort of what he had while Lazarus “lying at [the rich man’s] door” did not. His enjoyment, however, was that of the hedonist, centered on the pleasuring of self. He was so turned toward himself that he did not even give the scraps that fell from his table to Lazarus. Proper enjoyment is delighting in the Lord and the good things of creation in gratitude. It is an enjoyment that prompts one to share with others. Coupled with detachment, it prompts one to give of their goods freely and abundantly, for the delight is first and foremost in the Lord, not in the thing itself.
Jesus’ call to repent is not just to the rich. It is a universal call to all and requires the same answer from all: to become poor in spirit. “He [Jesus Christ] wishes rather to exhort all, both rich and poor, to the practice of the virtue of poverty and detachment. For there are many who are poor in the goods of this world, but their hearts cling tenaciously to the things of earth” (St. Alphonsus Ligouri, The Twelve Steps to Holiness and Salvation, chapter 5). So let Christians first give thanks for what they have received, and let them exercise responsibility over what they have with prudence, temperance, and diligence—and above all strive for the freedom of spiritual poverty.
[Image: “Lazarus and the Rich Man” by Jacopo Bassano]