Can middle class Christians live comfortably and follow Jesus?
I have always admired St. Francis, free as he was from ties to place or possessions, and I have liked the idea of giving up all but the most basic material goods. But when my husband and I had our first child, we bought a house. It is a simple rambler, but even so, as our little one grew and a little sister joined him, we began to acquire more and more “stuff.” A minivan began to seem necessary. My love for these little people and the urge to care for them responsibly seemed, on the one hand, to be the fulfillment of a deep calling but, on the other hand, to be pulling me further and further away from the ideal Christian life I saw in the examples of St. Francis, Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta and the hidden saints among us living simply and serving others.
Indeed, the Gospels are filled with Jesus’ warnings about material wealth. In Matthew’s Gospel (19:23), Christ counsels: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” These words reasonably strike fear into the heart of the well-to-do listener. Even those who live relatively comfortable middle-class lives might be inclined to ask: “Is it possible to live in the United States with a full pantry and still be true to the radical call of Jesus?” Can we answer this question in a way that does not water down Jesus’ message or promote what is often called the “prosperity gospel,” the idea that God rewards the faithful with earthly wealth?
Consider the parable of the barn in Lk 12:16-20. After a man stores up many years’ worth of grain and crops in a big, new barn he is very pleased, content to “take life easy, drink and be merry.” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself? This is how it will be with those who store up things for themselves but are not rich toward God.” To middle-class modes of thinking, which many of us presuppose, storing up supplies and food is a sound decision any responsible person would make. Does this parable mean we ought not prepare for the future at all, have no savings account, no pantry or freezer?
Likewise in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells his disciples not to worry about what they will eat, drink or wear. The Father feeds the birds of the air, he says; “Are you not much more valuable than they?” (Mt 6:26). Jesus advises us to not to be overly concerned with food or clothing because God knows we need these things. Does this mean we have only to glance around us and pick up our food for the day?
Again, all those who live comfortable lives in the United States could be the rich young man who asks Jesus what he must do to gain eternal life and is saddened by the answer he receives: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Mt 19:21). Yes, we too can “keep the Commandments” easily enough. But are we willing to give everything to God, to let go of our money, our plans, our status? Are we willing to wave farewell to these things joyfully, out of love?
Answering yes to any of these questions would seriously challenge the way most Americans live today. If God demands all our worldly possessions, it seems that only the materially impoverished have any chance at reaching the kingdom. It is certainly true that the poor often live in a very radical way, on hope and faith alone, without vast preoccupation or preparation.
Living for Today
In her classic book A Framework for Understanding Poverty, Ruby K. Payne describes the “hidden rules” that govern life and even patterns of thinking among different economic classes. She considers time a central principle for organizing one’s life and notes that for those in poverty the “present is more important. Decisions [are] made for [the] moment [and are] based on feelings or survival.” For the middle class the “future is most important. Decisions [are] made against future ramifications.” And for the wealthy, “traditions and history are most important.” Reading this, the Sermon on the Mount springs to mind: “Do not worry about your life.” Many of the materially poor do not have the luxury of dwelling on the past or planning for the future; their lives are lived in the present.
Russell Saltzman, a Lutheran pastor in Riverside, Mo., describes this reality in his blog post “The Poor Are Not Middle Class” (9/11/14) on the website of First Things. To the poor and homeless who come to the church door he often gives small, precise amounts of money, just what the recipients have calculated they need for the next meal, the next medical prescription, the next tank of gas. “I encountered people, families, living in and out of motels,” he writes, “...watching the daily rate with absolutely no means of paying it and needing, I remember this, exactly $32.48 for one more night.” In his account, we see folks following the Gospel in a sense; they are not storing a penny up in barns for tomorrow.
There is indeed a wide subset of the population who lives for the present day with little to no concern for future planning. Jesus Christ truly came to ones such as these. In Lk 4:18, Jesus cites the words of Isaiah’s prophecy and establishes himself as their fulfillment: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.”
Whose Good News?
A nagging question then arises: Can those in the middle class hear this good news as clearly and live the Gospel as authentically as the poor? As with many big questions, the answer is nuanced.
The Gospel is indeed a message of liberation from earthly suffering aimed at all people, especially those who suffer the most. This naturally comes as welcome news for men and women living with the hardships of poverty. In contrast, for those in the middle class this present life may be so good that they see little need to hope for something beyond what this world has to offer. A “good life” can easily become centered on accumulating more goods, which can distract from eternal realities.
Still, Jesus’ message is for everyone, and everyone includes homeowners and wage earners. As St. John Paul II put it in his encyclical “Centesimus Annus”: “It is not wrong to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life, which is presumed to be better when it is directed toward ‘having’ rather than ‘being’” (No. 36). To put it another way, having a full refrigerator and dresser is not itself problematic. What ails the Christian life is instead an avaricious desire that places ultimate value in possessions, status and acquiring. Ultimate value stems from God alone.
Christ teaches us about the proper ordering of values later in the Sermon on the Mount. Directly following the exhortation “Do not worry,” Jesus says: “For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Mt 6:32-34). The key here is in that last sentence. God must come first in our lives, but he knows we need worldly goods, so he provides them as well. Regarding this passage, St. Augustine says in his “Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount” (2.16.53):
When he said that the one is to be sought first, Jesus clearly intimates that the other is to be sought later—not that it is to be sought at a later time but that it is to be sought as a thing of secondary importance.
Jesus is not saying that we ought not to work to supply our human needs of food, clothing and shelter. That would be irresponsible if we have the means to provide for ourselves and others. What it means is that our efforts to meet our physical needs must be subordinated to our highest good, which, Christ tells us, is to seek God’s kingdom. When that is our primary motivation and ordering principle, everything else will fall into its rightful place.
It would be easy here to misread this as a version of the prosperity gospel answer, “If you’re a good Christian, God will reward you with worldly wealth.” But that would be twisting the message. In concrete terms, if the Christian is truly following God, he or she will be able to discern how much food and savings he or she needs and will also be able to steward those resources for the good of God’s kingdom.
Worldly goods are not dismissed—they are just not the highest good, and they should not be treated as such. The man who built and filled the barn thought that he was securing all the welfare that mattered in his life. It was not necessarily wrong of him to reap and store crops; his error was that he neglected his eternal soul because he thought that bread alone was enough. He was not “rich with God.”
Preparing for the future is not bad or un-Christian. The church, the living body of Christ, comprises members of all walks of life, and those with more resources are poised precisely to help those with less. Though, “the poor will be with us always,” we can and should continue to work in the present to alleviate human suffering in this world. When those living comfortable middle-class lives ask themselves honestly about how well they are stewarding their resources and are willing to humbly serve their families, communities and God, then the Gospel can dwell as naturally with them as it dwells with the poor.