Material simplicity and following Jesus


In today’s gospel reading, Jesus meets a young man who wants to know what he needs to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus reminds him of the commandments. The young man says he obeys all of them. Then Jesus looks at him “with love” and tells him to sell all he has, to give the money to the poor, and to follow him. The man goes away sad because of his wealth.

Although I think there are many layers to this story, I also think as readers it is good not to try to understand Jesus’ words in a way that we accommodate them to our lifestyles. For example, if we were to say: the real meaning of Jesus’ words is about putting God first, and not about giving up our material possessions,  then we would be dodging the force of what Jesus says. Better for us to walk away sad that we have not fulfilled what Jesus said, than to never really listen to his words in the first place!

I think, then, the best thing for each of us to do is really to sit with Jesus words at a most literal level. Jesus tells us that the best life would be one where we give up our material possessions so that the poor can have what they need. And to follow God, unencumbered material concerns.

One reason that people in religious life give up all material goods is in order to be free: free of the preoccupations of wealth and free to serve God and their fellow human beings. The appeal of religious life for many people has been precisely in this: being called to follow Jesus in a particular way where nothing stands between oneself and God; and to give up wealth and other worldly attachments so that at least some of the obstacles that stand in the way of this happening are removed. Although I am not a religious, there is something very compelling about the idea of giving up material things to follow Jesus, and everyone ought to listen to this part of herself or himself if Jesus’ words speak to it.

But we also are called to give up what we have and do not need because there are many, many people in our world who do not even have what they do need: safe housing, good food and water, health care, freedom from war and violence. If we are in a position to assist, we should.

For those of us who are laypeople—who ought NOT give up our commitments to our spouses and children, who depend on us—we no less than religious need to think about what we do to care for the poor, and whether our material goods stand in the way of our relationship with God. For us, too, there is a call to live out a materially simpler life than our surrounding culture, one that allows us to relate more closely in love to others—and allows those who are poor to have flourishing lives.

Relationship to God in many ways is simple, not complicated. Love of God is not about complicated techniques of prayer, or even mystical experiences. Love of God is shown in how we care for one another, and in following Jesus wherever Jesus calls us, individually and as a community to go. God offers God’s self all around us, every day, in places that have nothing to do with wealth: the beauty of sun coming out from behind clouds, or the affectionate squeeze of a hand from a friend, or the beautiful sound of bird song first thing in the morning. God is present when we stop putting fences between ourselves and those who are materially poor–fences both geographical and social that we ourselves often create through our choices to love wealth more than to love one another.

Today Oscar Romero SJ is being beatified—what a good model of one who left everything to follow God and be present to the poor he is. In many ways, this choice he made to follow the poor came not most crucially when he became a religious or priest, but when he chose to live out his vocation for and with the people of El Salvador, even being willing to die in order to continue to preach the good news for and with them.