Jesus, Saint Clare, and the Gospel of Prosperity

Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.  —Mark 10:21-22.

Today is the feast of Saint Clare of Assisi (1194-1253), a Christian who fully embraced these words of Jesus. A young woman from a wealthy family, Clare gave up a luxurious lifestyle at age 18 in response to the preaching of the now-famous Francis of Assisi. Like Francis, her goal was to embody the gospel message completely, to imitate Christ so much that her life might become a sort of mirror image of the Savior.

In founding the Poor Clares, a religious order of women who follow Franciscan ideals, Clare made living a life of utter simplicity or “holy poverty,” a foundational principle. Clare wanted to be free of all that might keep her from experiencing the fullness of Christ in her life.

That is not to say that poverty is a glorious thing. It is not glamorous or desirable to be forced into poverty. The Lord does not want people to starve. The key thing here is that those with much wealth and many material things (and most Americans fit into this category) can become so attached to these things that they focus their lives on obtaining more and more things or money rather than focusing their hearts on God.

The man in the gospel reading above goes away “shocked and grieving”–he can’t  believe his ears. He’s kept all the commandments and now Jesus wants him to get rid of his treasured possessions. This man probably spent his whole life amassing those possessions, maintaining them with repair and upkeep, and protecting them from thieves. His “things” were probably his main focus–and Jesus encourages him to get rid of them.

In her time, Clare took these words of Christ very seriously. I’m trying to imagine what this teaching means in our lives today. Certainly Christ desires that we have basic food and shelter. After all, he taught us to pray, “give us this day, our daily bread.” But I rather doubt Christ would want many of us (if any) to pray “give us this day, increased stock dividends,” or “save me from higher taxes.”

Yet, some Christian speakers of today give the impression that following Christ is a recipe for wealth, success, and earthly power. If you pray the right way, or donate to the right ministry, money will come back to you in return. This is known as the “gospel of prosperity.”

I wonder, how does one reconcile the gospel of prosperity with these words of Jesus telling the man to sell all he owned? To build up treasure, not in bank accounts, powerful cars or sleek electronic gadgets (confession: I just bought a Kindle), but rather “treasure in heaven”?

Saint Clare was counter-cultural when she dared to say no to her parents’ plan for her life (prestigious marriage, no doubt) and took up instead the cross of Christ in holy poverty. She even stood her ground on this issue when church officials wanted to release her from her vow of holy poverty because they thought it too strenuous for a woman. “Release me from my sins,” she said, “but never from the vow of holy poverty,” or something to that effect (I regret I can’t find where I read this).

Today we are bombarded with messages that would lead us away from the true way of Christ, some of them coming from people who call themselves “Christian.” May we have the courage of Clare, even when it means giving up wealth, power, or prestige for the sake of the gospel.

Spiritual Aerobics

Think about your possessions. Is there something you own that you could give to someone in need? Perhaps a closet filled with things you never use? Magazines? School supplies? Dishes? A table? Socks? Suitcases? Phones? Radios? Winter coats? School clothes? Books? A musical instrument or sports equipment? Blankets?

Miracles Begin with Compassion

When Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. –Matthew 14:14

While listening to Pastor Kevin Olson’s sermon at Easter Lutheran Church this past Sunday, one sentence he said particularly struck me: “Every miracle begins with compassion.”

How different Jesus is from many public figures of our time–he did not work miracles merely to show his great spiritual power, create “special effects,” or convince others he was the Messiah. Jesus was not a politician trying to drive up his approval ratings or a celebrity seeking more media exposure.

Jesus was motivated by compassion. In Matthew 14, the passage read on Sunday, Jesus has just heard about the death of his cousin John the Baptist. He responds by going off to a deserted spot to pray, and, I imagine, have a little downtime to grieve.

But people want to see Jesus so much that they go out of their way to find him. When his prayer time is interrupted, Jesus doesn’t rebuke them or send them away. Out of love, he sets aside his own agenda and calmly responds to their needs.

This is one way that Jesus and I differ. When I am interrupted in my work or prayer, I don’t always respond that well. Pastor Kevin reminded us that spiritual writer Henri Nouwen pointed out that our true mission is sometimes found in the interruptions themselves. Our real ministry is not only in the “work” we do, but in the midst of people who come our way and “interrupt” us.

Jesus’ compassion doesn’t end at the end of the work shift, either. After a long day of interacting with the crowd, which has now grown to 5,000 (not counting the women and children), the disciples remind Jesus it’s getting late and no one has eaten. They suggest Jesus punch out for the day by telling the people to go to the nearby village to get something to eat.

But Jesus’ compassion for others is so great that he doesn’t want to risk people not getting fed due to lack of money or lack of resources (would a village really have enough food for thousands of people without advance notice?). So he tells the disciples:

You give them something to eat.

The disciples, of course, objected to this impractical—no, make that completely unreasonable—idea. They have some concern for the crowd’s needs, but this idea of feeding the crowd themselves seems ridiculous.

Nevertheless, Jesus asks the disciples to bring him what they have, the now-famous five loaves and two fish. Jesus blesses it and the disciples begin to offer it to others, and, as you know, the food in some miraculous way multiplies to feed them all.

I know I am like those disciples. I sometimes see other people’s needs and feel compassion but stop short of doing anything. I want to help them, but like the disciples, part of me wants to send the suffering away to get help someplace else.

There are many people suffering in our world today who need our compassion. There are those who are unemployed or under-employed, the sick and starving, the battered and war-torn, and the list goes on and on. Each of us, by ourselves, cannot undo all the problems of the world, nor does God expect us to do so.

However, too often we use the vastness of the problems to keep us from doing anything at all. Like Jesus’ disciples who wanted to send the hungry crowd away to fend for themselves, we want to send the suffering away—let someone else deal with the problem.

But Jesus didn’t send people away empty. He filled their lives with healing, love, meaning, and yes, food for their bodies. Through the words of Scripture, Jesus tells us again today:

You give them something to eat.

 Until next time, Amen!

Spiritual Aerobics

The word “compassion” comes from roots that mean to stand with someone in their suffering. The compassionate person is willing to journey with another who is experiencing pain, agony, confusion, or other trials. Who do you know that is suffering these days? How would Jesus express compassion for this person? Is there something you could do for him or her?