The Challenge of Poverty!

Luke 18:22
And when Jesus heard it, He said to him, “One thing you still lack.  Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”

Today’s verse, like yesterday’s, is a passage, like so many in Scripture, about the relationship between God, us, and our stuff.  Yesterday’s verse was about a poor woman who wanted to give herself totally to God and who made her stuff a token of that total self-giving.  Today’s verse is about a rich young man who wanted to keep himself from God and who made his stuff a substitute for the real (and highly demanding) God.  To be sure, he did correct things.  But all his good deeds constituted a sort of huge anteroom around the Holy of Holies in his soul: his attachment to earthly treasure (and, no doubt, to all that this treasure represented: power, self-sufficiency, a certain sense of freedom from fear — in short, the illusion that we are not impoverished).  However open the anteroom was to God, the Holy of Holies stayed locked and double-bolted.  Jesus breezed through the anteroom of Good Deeds Done to Prove We’re was Good Enough and addressed instantly the idol in the Holy of Holies, banging on the door and demanding that it had to go. Sooner or later, every one of us has to face our poverty too, especially if we’ve covered it up with a lot of wealth.  If we do it wrong, we turn away like the rich young man, terrified of discovering how needy he is.  If we do it right, we find the joy of St. Francis and the freedom of Lady Poverty.

Mark Shea


Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog and regularly blogs for National Catholic Register. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.

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  • Guest

    Thanks to Mark Shea for directing our attention to the problem of true spiritual poverty. I would offer a few reflections. I disagree that the young  man wanted to " keep himself from God",  "substituted his  stuff for the real God", or that he was not spiritually impoverished but rather  steeped in "power, self-sufficiency." The text simply does not offer us that much about the young man. As for interpretation and application of the text, I do not think Our Lord's demand to the Rich Young Man is to be generalized literally as pertaining to all Christians: " Sell all that you have…".  Jesus's command to the young man, however, was most likely directed literally to the young man since Jesus did not retract the demand eventhough the man departed. So was His demand a sort of ad hoc demand, just for this man then and there? Most likely, for Jesus's demand to total material divestment and distribution to the poor was a pre-requisite for the young man's becoming a disciple ; a requirement attached to Jesus' invitation  " …come follow me" literarlly, that is, to join as one of the inner core. Now it seems to me that we are not privileged by the Lucan text to know whether or not the young man  was indeed steeped in legal self-sufficiency. Recall that he had been a faithful observer of the Law, so he says, yet he still comes to Jesus for "more."  Nor are we privileged to know whether the young man made an idol of his riches. We do know he sought more of a union with God, that He was drawn to Jesus as the source of that "more", and that Jesus made an invitation of radical discipleship which the youing man declined because of his possessions. Nor might we surmise from the text that the young man was not "needy", in fact, we must suggest the opossite : he was at least to some real degree spiritually poor and needy, since He sought out the Lord for more. Nor did he voluntarily or pridefully offer to Jesus a list of his Good Deeds Done as "proof" of his worthiness but merely responded as any faithful Jew to Jesus's implicit inquiry," You know the requirements…." by saying in reply, " All these I have observed.." No hint of arrogance here nor hint that the young man expected payment from God for all his legal observances. The question relevant to this passage, in departure from the rather pre-fabbed and banal traditional interpretations most of which are  mistakeningly  denigrating of the young man, seems to involve whether and how does one maintain- in the face of material possessions- the very necessary spiritual poverty for following Jesus, that is, for becoming truly transformed in and by Christ.  Perhaps we may regard "selling and distributing all" as pertaining to the [ later] evangelical counsels but certainly not to all Christians literally. Most likely this passage, though historical ( mentioned in all Synoptics), is not a verbatim record of Jesus's words but  was intended by the author as a hyperbolic prelude to the following v.25 which is indeed a very appropriate and generalizable admonition from Our Lord about how riches encumber one's entry into the kingdom of God. But we do not have to divest all materal things in order to enter the kingdom or to follow Jesus.  We do not all have to become apostles, priests, or "religious." Surely, we do not think that in Jesus's own mind one must become an inner core disciple in order to follow Him. Surely, we do not think that Jesus dismissively pinned away," Alas! This young man is doomed!"  Surely in the actual historical matrix of this passage, Our Lord must have somehow felt empathy for the young man, perhaps sought him out or encountered him later in a concerned manner…we do not know. Nor did Our Lord   pronounce such austere demands on others who were materially well off – e.g. Lazarus and Nicodemus- whom He loved.    

  • Joe DeVet

    Well. I certainly think that Mark’s posting is at least a plausible recounting of the attitude of the rich young man and the lesson of this passage.

    But I would also offer an extended reflection that goes beyond most of what we hear about this and yet is not in conflict with the common interpretations. And that is the reflection left us by John Paul the Great in his powerful encyclical “Veritatis Splendor.” The reflection on the Rich Young Man is a delight, with lessons aplenty for us all to take home. The encyclical letter as a whole is a bracing rebuke of certain strains of moral theology run amok over the past 50 years or so.

    Read the whole thing!