Is there joy in being poor?

Published July 11, 2021, 12:12 AM

by Fr. Rolando V. De La Rosa, OP


Fr. Rolando V. dela Rosa, O.P.

We see many signs that say: “Jesus Saves!” In a way, Jesus never saved. He did not save money or wealth, nor did he keep a pile of souvenirs that will remind people of Him. Jesus did not even have a place He could call His own. He told those who wanted to follow Him: “The foxes have lairs, the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20).

Jesus refused to save things for the future because He personified the first Beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  Now, this is one teaching of Jesus that is often misunderstood. Many of us think that being poor in spirit means being deprived of material goods necessary to live decently. We thus wrongly conclude that Jesus idealizes beggars and those who wallow in abject poverty.

Poverty itself is not a virtue. It can be a curse, and it can make people regard poverty as the right disadvantage. They use their being poor to justify their crimes.

Jesus taught us that the person who is “poor in spirit” is the one who does not call anything his own, and therefore, is not afraid to lose anything.  For, how can you ever lose something which you never claimed as yours?  As long as we are afraid to lose something (or someone), we can never be poor in the eyes of Jesus, nor can we proclaim effectively His message of salvation.

This explains why, in the Gospel reading today, Jesus sent the apostles on their first mission with this instruction: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff — no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra shirt” (Mark 6:7-13).  Well, I don’t suppose the apostles took His command literally. They must have understood that Jesus simply wanted them to have absolute dependence on God and the people whom they would meet. He wanted them to be poor in spirit so they would regard every good act that they would perform not as theirs, but as the work of Jesus.

As the Gospel reading today shows, the apostles were successful in their mission. They became effective channels of grace because, having been poor in spirit, they were like an open hand, ready to receive every blessing God wanted to bestow on them, and ready to share these with others. They knew that such blessings were not theirs to hoard.

It is difficult to depend on God for everything because our culture exalts the value of self-sufficiency and teaches us that depending on others for anything is a sign of weakness. So we resemble a clenched fist, unwilling to let go and give up control, always afraid of losing what we consider ours, and ready to punch anyone who dared to take it from us.

St. Dominic, the founder of the Order of Preachers, was a person who found joy in being poor in spirit. While still a student, a famine ravaged the place where he was studying. Immediately, he sold his books and gave the proceeds to the poor and afflicted. Books must have been worth a fortune at that time because printing was not yet invented.

St. Dominic was also offered three times by Church authorities to become a bishop but he refused. He preferred that people accepted his preaching, not because of the office he held, but by the convincing power of his words and the simplicity of his life. He did not want the trappings of ecclesiastical office to distract people from listening to his message.

Finally, he capped his extremely austere life by dying not on a bed, but on the cold floor in a room that was not his own, wearing a religious habit borrowed from another brother.