Yesterday, in “What I’m Reading,” I noted a Michelle Singletary column in the Washington Post in which a reader complained that “life is expensive even for the top 5%.”
Interestingly, the column ran just a day before the Gospel reading at Daily Mass was about the good young man who observed all the commandments, but wanted to know “what good I must do to gain eternal life?”
St. Matthew recounts Jesus’s response: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor.” The reading tells us the young man went away sad, because he had many possessions.
There are a couple of things to note about this reading. First, the young man was good. He observed all the commandments. It’s very important to understand this point. He wasn’t the rich man who stepped over Lazarus.
But when challenged to “sell what you have and give to the poor” he couldn’t bring himself to do it. This is why Jesus, in another reading, remarks how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus’s response to the good young man was an invitation to poverty. That call is embraced by religious, who own nothing and share all they earn or have with the community to which they belong.
But what about us, ordinary laypeople with families? Or who hope to have families? Most parents live that same spirit — they view what they own as being held in trust for their families. If they are fortunate, they hope to be able to pass some of that along to their children. So the evangelical concept of poverty embraced by vowed religious isn’t that different from what is practiced in families rich and poor.
But poverty as a spiritual counsel, especially as it applies to ordinary laypeople, is about more than what’s in the bank, or the size of one’s home. It’s about detachment from the desire for riches, from avarice. It’s about not forgetting the poor.
“Our culture does a poor job of schooling us” in how to deal with abundance, says Msgr. Charles Pope. “We’re repeatedly told we can never have enough.” For the most part, he says, we simply don’t know how to tell when we have “reached the point at which we can say, ‘My family and I have what we need, and even a good bit of what we want. Now it’s important to give out of our abundance.”
It’s important to “cultivate what we call the spirit of poverty, to learn to be content with and grateful for what we have,” Msgr. Pope adds. “By the spirit of poverty we learn to be detached from the excesses of this world. By living more simply, we are able to be more generous both with our children and with the poor.”
And that’s what made the family Michelle Singletary wrote about so interesting. Certainly, they had budgeted every penny left over after paying their taxes. One can argue that they don’t need a house that requires a $2,500-a-month mortgage payment. But in the Washington, D.C., area that doesn’t indicate an excessive house.
It’s also worth noting that the family is more generous than many in its income bracket, giving 5% of their income to charity. This is a good family, working hard to be generous and to meet their responsibility to their children, budgeting $16,500 for college savings and $2,648 for various school expenses and tutors.
But, this family, Singletary notes, is “spending more money on recreation, travel, gifts and entertainment than some families have in annual household income.
“I’ve heard from parents who have saved adequately for their kids’ college education yet complain that poorer families are eligible for need-based financial aid,” she says, adding:
“They say things such as, ‘I’m being punished for saving.’ Or they protest, ‘Why should families that were irresponsible get rewarded?'”
If we cultivate a spirit of detachment, we’re more likely to be grateful for what we have, and to be more generous with those who have less.
And we should never begrudge assistance to those in genuine need. After all, we might find ourselves in that position too. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that over a 40-year working life, 60% of Americans spend at least one year on a poverty-level income.
The challenge the good family Singletary wrote about should undertake, especially if they are Catholic, is to increase their donations over the next five years to 10% of their income.
That’s doable: To increase their giving next year to 6% from 5%, they would need to simply trim the $32,598 they spend on recreation, travel, gifts and entertainment by 7%, or $47 a week. . . one fewer latte’s a day at Starbucks.