Come now, you rich, weep and wail over your impending miseries. Your wealth has rotted away, your clothes have become moth-eaten, your gold and silver have corroded, and that corrosion will be a testimony against you; it will devour your flesh like a fire (Js 5:1-3a).
My husband and I encountered the idea of voluntary poverty early in our marriage, and the idea has stuck with us. At the moment, we are in one of those seasons of life into which we occasionally wander—or are led. He’s reading Happy Are You Poor, and I’m knee-deep in the writings of Servant of God Dorothy Day, so today’s scriptures hit hard. Fire in the flesh hard.
It’s difficult to make sense of voluntary poverty in a place as affluent as 21st century America. We’re well aware, of course, that even if our family is “poor” compared to a lot of Americans, we are gaudily rich compared to much of the rest of the world. And while we don’t think of ourselves as living off of the “wages withheld from the workers,” I couldn’t tell you who made my computer or my t-shirt, or whether they were justly paid and kindly treated. I suspect they were not.
I’m used to wrestling with readings like this one from St. James, but today in the liturgy it is paired with the millstone. In other words, it is our responsibility as parents to teach our children how to be Christlike—and how to do it in a world of on-demand everything.
We try to make our home a place where, as Servant of God Dorothy Day wrote, “it is easier to be good.” With no TV and limited internet, our kids see fewer advertisements and thus (we hope) spend less time being covetous. We try to teach them, through our words and actions, that we don’t need to pile up goods here on earth, because our Father in heaven cares for us. It’s important that they understand that we don’t just buy our clothes second-hand because they cost less (I will not lie—that is part of it!), but also because it’s one way to avoid supporting unjust labor practices. Beyond that, it teaches solidarity: it gives us a glimpse into the lives of those who can’t afford to buy new clothes whenever the fashion changes. It’s also important to us that our kids see where the money we don’t spend on “stuff” goes—we include them in our decisions about which charities we support, and they help drop off donations at the community fridge down the street.
Which is all fine and good, but it’s also only a drop in the bucket.
I think the larger part of the solution is the right ordering of our hope. We must hope in the Lord, not in job security or a 401K. “But seek first the kingdom [of God] and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides” (Mt 6:33). While I rarely feel like we’re doing enough to embrace holy poverty, my hope is in him—that he will help me do my best for his “little ones”—and that he will do the rest.