Jesus was not anti-cultural, but he was counter-cultural. He offered another way, an alternative, to the followers of his time and to the followers of our time. He certainly recognized that what he was teaching would put those who believed in his message at odds with others. He did not shy away from this. And he instructed his disciples to be ready for it too. Being viewed as an outsider was not a reason to quit the faith.
Today’s Gospel contains a brief story of a poor widow who walked into a treasury one day, not having any idea that her simple expression of generosity would be remembered for thousands of years. She gave of herself in a personal and impactful manner. She had so little, yet she gave so much.
In our culture, poor is not something anyone would want to be. No one goes through the effort of standing on a street corner waving a sign that reads: “I’m for poverty!” We would not choose it, yet I would like you to consider the simple idea that poverty is actually something worth embracing. Pursuing even. This… is definitely counter-cultural.
To truly consider this, I’d like to share with you something I refer to as the third way or third level of thinking about something.
Let’s look at two examples. First, Jesus tells us to love our enemies and to forgive. We could say that Jesus is asking us to do this because this is how we demonstrate how nice and how good we are. Good gets us into heaven. At the second level, we could come to understand that God cares about all of his children and by loving our enemies, we are sharing love with even more of God’s family. But at the third level, we recognize that God knows and wants what is best for us. He asks us to forgive because when we do so, we ourselves can heal from whatever that enemy did to hurt us in the first place. Forgiveness at the third level is our path to lasting joy.
Not someday joy. Not eventual joy. Joy now. And joy that lasts.
Another example has to do with not judging others. Jesus clearly makes the point that it is not up to us to judge. “Let those among you without sin, cast the first stone…” At the first level of thinking on this, we could say that not judging others is simply the right thing to do. That it’s good and we know that God likes good. At the second level, we could say that we are giving our fellow brothers and sisters the benefit of the doubt. But at the third level, we understand that God is relieving us of the burden of judgement. That it is merciful to not give us this responsibility and thus, he takes it on himself.
Which brings us back to poverty. We could conclude that our task is to try to eliminate poverty because at the first level, that’s virtuous and at the second, it demonstrates our love for our neighbor. But at the third level, poverty is something that we ourselves can and should embrace as a virtue… for ourselves. This notion is wildly counter-cultural.
When we are poor, when we do not have, when we experience that kind of hardship, then we are purified and made more in need and become ever more ready to accept God in our lives. Our need drives us toward God.
The absence of poverty, in other words, excess, surplus, comfort, and freedom… gives us a sense of self determination, that we can be the centers of our own universes, able to choose what we want and how to live our lives. But this is a false sense at best because we are merely sinful, vulnerable and dependent. In our culture, we praise the self-made person. But it’s all just a grand illusion. We need our loving, Creator God… but our excess, surplus, comfort and freedom cloud our vision, make us blinded to this vital truth.
Poverty frees us. We don’t become owned by our possessions and we can stop chasing. So much of life can become about chasing something.
Jesus’ story about the poor widow is a call to poverty ourselves. To embrace it. It is an invitation to give not from our excess but rather from our core and in a way that cuts deeply and closer to bone. Mother Teresa, who served the poorest of the poor and who also ministered to the wealthy who sought to help her, said: “Poverty is freedom. It is a freedom so that what I possess doesn’t own me, so that what I possess doesn’t hold me down, so that my possessions don’t keep me from sharing or giving of myself.”
Jesus calls us to give of ourselves. If Mother Teresa is right, then experiencing true poverty is our best path toward answering this call from Jesus. It is the way to joy.
So, what can you or I do to more fully embrace poverty?
How can we give to others, not from our excess, but in a more deeply personal way?
And how can we be in this culture, yet at the same time, living proof that there is another way?