The Way of Simplicity
By Deacon Keith Fournier
© Third Millennium, LLC
"This is the Gospel (Good News) of the Lord Jesus Christ"
"The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord, since, especially in the sacred liturgy, she unceasingly receives and offers to the faithful the bread of life from the table both of God's word and of Christ's body... For in the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven meets His children with great love and speaks with them; and the force and power in the word of God is so great that it stands as the support and energy of the Church, the strength of faith for her sons, the food of the soul, the pure and everlasting source of spiritual life. ..." (Acts 20:32; see 1 Thess. 2:13). Dogmatic Constitution On Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) November 8, 1965, paragraph 21
One of the privileges I have as a Deacon of the Church is to read the "Gospel", the "Good News" of the Lord at the Divine Liturgy or the "Mass". At the end of reading the Sacred Words, I elevate the Book of the Gospels and proclaim the words with which I began this article. One of the reasons the Gospel is "good" is because it contains within it the power to make us "good", by making us like the One whom we encounter in its proclamation, the One who is "goodness" Himself.
Another privilege I also have is to periodically preach a homily, breaking open those words for the faithful as food for their journey through life. I consider this a serious obligation. After all, the words being reflected upon are actually being spoken by the Lord. The "The Word of God" is "bread". It is also an occasion to meet the Father in an encounter. The homilist, priest or deacon, is simply a servant, making himself available to the Lord for the encounter between the Father and His children through preaching the homily.
Months ago, on the 26th Sunday of the Year, the C" sequence of readings in the Catholic Lectionary were taken from the Prophet Amos, (Amos 1:4-7), St Paul's Letter to Timothy (1 Timothy 6:11-16) and the Gospel of St. Luke (Luke 16:19-31). I had prayed through the readings and written down a few thoughts. As they were proclaimed at the Liturgy, I was struck by their extraordinary relevance and timelessness.
I now share their substance with my readers as a reflection on the "Way of Simplicity."
One of the continual challenges we all have, living in the "real world" is that of developing the right relationship with what the Christian faith calls the "goods" of the earth. In the first reading, we encounter the prophet Amos returning from the desert of Samaria. He found the leaders of God's chosen people, given over to a wrong relationship with the "goods" of this world:
"Lying on ivory beds and sprawling on their divans, they dine on lambs from the flock and small fattened veal...they drink wine by the bowlful and use the finest oil for anointing themselves, but about the ruin of Joseph they do not care at all..." The Prophet then proclaimed: "That is why they will be the first to be exiled" Only a few years later, that prophecy was fulfilled.
A wrong relationship with the "goods" of the earth, a disordered relationship, leads to a blindness of spirit and a neglect of the One who is Goodness Himself, the Lord.
St Paul, in the epistle of the day, reminded Timothy to "seek after integrity, piety, faith, love, steadfastness, and a gentle spirit." He told him to "Fight the good fight of faith" Let's be honest, staying faithful is often a fight. There is something within our disordered affections that pulls us away from goodness. This is what classical western theology calls "concupiscence" and it is caused by sin. We who follow the Lord are to fight against that "pull", and to co-operate with the grace of conversion. That cooperation unfolds along a path to becoming "good" as He is good. The Christian life is a continuous invitation to conversion through our ongoing response to Gods' loving invitations.
We are called to live differently, because we now live our lives in Christ.
We see this as well in the Gospel story. Remember, it is "Good News", intended to make us "good" through conversion. We meet a rich man who falls into a trap; he embraces a wrong relationship with the "goods" of the earth. Instead of growing closer to the Lord through these goods - by offering them back to the Lord who is their Source and using them to serve others, his disordered appetites blinded him. He failed to see the need of his brother Lazarus:
"There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day. And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man's table. Dogs even used to come and lick his sores.
When the poor man died, he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried, and from the netherworld, where he was in torment, he raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he cried out, 'Father Abraham, have pity on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am suffering torment in these flames.'
Abraham replied, 'My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented. Moreover, between us and you a great chasm is established to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go from our side to yours or from your side to ours.' He said, 'Then I beg you, father, send him to my father's house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they too come to this place of torment.'
But Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.' He said, 'Oh no, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.' Then Abraham said, 'If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.'" Luke 16:19-31
Notice, the Lord said nothing about the rich mans possessions themselves, but rather his use of them. He failed to recognize, let alone respond to, the need of others. Having "goods" is not the sin. It is rather a "matter of the heart". In this story, the "goods" have the man and he is blinded, unable to see the needs of His brother. He lived for himself as if God did not exist. His sin was that he did not see Lazarus. He did not love.
St Augustine proclaimed in a homily on this same Gospel passage:"Lazarus was received into heaven because of his humility and not because of his poverty. Wealth itself was not what kept the rich man from eternal bliss. His punishment was for selfishness and disloyalty"
As Christians, followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to a different way of living, a different way of relating to the "goods" of the earth. In an age with bumper stickers that say, "Whoever dies with the most toys wins" and "I am spending my retirement spending my children's inheritance", we are invited to make a choice concerning our relationship with the goods of the earth. We are called, in whatever state in life we live out the Gospel vocation, to live the "way of simplicity".
Among the many treasures of the Catholic faith, we have the riches of the witness of those who have gone on before us and show us the way to respond to the invitation to live the Gospel. Next to her Son, Mary the Mother of the Lord, lived this way of simplicity most perfectly and shows us the way. In prophetic contrast to our contemporary western excess, her humble life reminds us that simplicity is the path to holiness, happiness and freedom.
Simplicity is not about the quantity of the goods of the earth we may possess. It is about our relationship to them. Jesus said, "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matt. 6:21). The real question posed by the challenge to live lives of godly simplicity is "Do we own them or do they own us?"
In truth, God owns them all and we are His stewards.
Mary's simplicity also stands in prophetic contrast to two mistaken notions concerning our relationship with these "goods", "our" possessions. These same questions emerge in every age. At the one extreme is a misguided embrace of economic poverty in the name of a spirituality that seems to maintain that wealth and material goods are somehow intrinsically evil. Although some believers are indeed called to a voluntary embrace of economic poverty as part of a specific vocation, most of us live in the material world of bills, possessions, and financial challenges and we are to learn how to receive and to use the "goods" of the earth, including money and material possessions.
Wealth and possessions are not evil. We are given them by the God who loves us. We are to receive them with gratitude and use them with gratitude and freedom in the Lord.
Matter is not evil. How can it be so when Jesus' earthly body was formed of matter? To think that it is often reveals that we misunderstand His incarnation and the resurrection of the body, which will take place in a new heaven and a new earth. The beloved disciple John in his first letter writes: "We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us. God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him. In this is love brought to perfection among us, that we have confidence on the Day of Judgment because as He is, so are we in this world." (I John 4:17,18)
Our relationship to this world - and the goods of this world- should mirror that of God's Son whom we follow. One of the great theologians of the twentieth century, Hans Urs Von Balthasar, wrote of the relationship with matter, in these profound words: "In Jesus Christ, God has engraved his name upon matter; he has inscribed it so deeply that it cannot be erased, for matter took him into its innermost self."
The other error, found in its most extreme contemporary manifestation in what has been labeled the so-called "prosperity gospel, equates God's favor with economic wealth. It is based upon a false equation that the more money we possess, the more spiritual power we have, and the more we can see that God favors us. Many of the Jews of Jesus' day believed that God's favor guaranteed wealth and prosperity.
But Jesus' life told a very different story. He was born in a manger. As an adult he had "no place to lay his head." He was raised in a simple home- by a woman whose heart recognized true wealth. Remember the words that the angel spoke to Mary when she asked how it could be that she would bear the Messiah. "Nothing is impossible with God" (Luke 1:37) Mary understood that when you have the Lord, you have it all. She lived in the heavenly economy, and if we choose, we can live there too. That is the way of simplicity.
In rediscovering our proper relationship to the goods of the earth--neither utterly rejecting them, wholeheartedly craving them, or turning them into an idol--we will find true freedom in Jesus Christ. Our eyes will be opened. We will not only learn to see Lazarus, we will see Jesus in Lazarus. Remember these sobering words from the twenty fifth chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew: "'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?' And the king will say to them in reply, 'Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me." (Matthew 25: 37-40)
The Lord has given us His word as food. He has also given us examples of His word, lived out. There is no greater example than His mother, who walked the way of simplicity and surrendered love. In her wonderful song, her Magnificat, she proclaimed the joy of every disciple who recognizes that when we have Jesus Christ, we have everything.
"He Has Filled The Hungry With Good Things, And The Rich He Has Sent Empty Away."
The witness of Mary's simplicity demonstrates the freedom that comes from a relationship with the Source of all good things, the Lord. Choosing to live in simplicity helps us to find freedom from materialistic idolatry and clears the way for us to more fully participate in the redemptive work of the One who still "fills the hungry with good things." Money is not evil. Nor is it "proof" of God's blessing and favor--a view that insults Christians who struggle daily to survive. Both errors fall short of the truth and are rooted in a mistaken foundation. They are self-centered rather than God and others centered.
The Apostle Paul wrote two letters to Timothy, a young disciple who had been placed in leadership over the Christian community at Ephesus, a city that was known for its wealth and luxury. St. Paul had traveled there to plant the nascent Christian Church and he knew that those new Christian believers would face certain dangers when dealing with wealth. He reminded Timothy:
" Indeed, religion with contentment is a great gain; for we brought nothing into the world, just as we shall not be able to take anything out of it. If we have food and clothing, we shall be content with that. Those who want to be rich are falling into temptation and into a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge them into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils, and some people in their desire for it have strayed from the faith and have pierced themselves with many pains. But you, man of God, avoid all this. Instead, pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness." (1 Tim. 6: 6-11)
How often have we have heard the saying, "Money is the root of all evil"? That is not what the Apostle taught. The phrase "love of money" is important because it speaks to matters of the heart. When we love the "goods" of the earth more than the One who created them, we commit the sin of idolatry. A destitute person can be just as obsessed with money as a wealthy one who is given over to greed. Mary helps us to see that a life of simplicity is the antidote to any disordered view of earthly goods.
In another one of his letters, to the Christians in Philippi, St Paul further explains his own approach to material things: "I know indeed how to live in humble circumstances; I know also how to live with abundance. In every circumstance and in all things I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need" (Philippians 4:12).
Paul was free from the love of money.
The Gospels of Matthew and Mark describe an encounter between Jesus and a wealthy young man. This man had faithfully followed the commandments since his youth, but Jesus told him his personal piety was not enough. He instructed the young man to give up his possessions and follow Him. We read that the man refused and went away sad because his possessions possessed him.
Consider these sobering words which follow this encounter in the Biblical text: "Then Jesus said to his disciples, 'Amen, I say to you, it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.' When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and said, 'Who then can be saved?' Jesus looked at them and said, 'For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible.' (Matthew 19, Mark 10).
Again, we are reminded of the angel's words to Mary "Nothing is impossible with God." Mary's treasure was always the One whom she carried in her womb, birthed for the world, and followed throughout her life. So it should be with each one of us.
When we begin to recognize our own poverty of spirit; we are able to live lives that are completely dependent upon Jesus, who is the Bread of Life. Only He can satisfy the hunger of the human heart. Only He can occupy the place within us that is to be reserved for worship and complete devotion. When we have Him, we have everything; even though we may possess nothing.
When we come to see that everything in our lives is a gift to be given back to the Giver, we begin to understand the way of simplicity. Only then can the goods of the earth be fully entrusted to us by the Lord who is their Source. Only then do we discover the secret of heaven's economy: those who live in simplicity are the richest people on the earth. Jesus called them the "poor in spirit." He promised them blessedness. He proclaimed that the kingdom of heaven belongs to them (Matt 5:3).
Let us hear the "Good news" and live it out by walking the way of simplicity.
Deacon Keith A Fournier is a Deacon of the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia. He is a graduate of the Franciscan University of Steubenville, the John Paul II Institute of the Lateran University and the University Of Pittsburgh School Of Law. The author of seven books on faith and life, his eighth, "The Prayer of Mary: Living the Surrendered Life" will be available from Thomas Nelson Publishers this spring. Deacon Fournier is a senior editor and correspondent for Catholic Online.
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