The Way of the Preacher
The Scriptures seem to highlight a connection between preaching and evangelical poverty. Br Jerome reflects on why a life of poverty is important for the preacher.
Reading: Mark 6:7-13
The following homily was preached to the student brothers during compline. You can listen here or read below:
Today’s Gospel passage draws our attention to a familiar theme: that of evangelical poverty. Indeed, this theme is present throughout the Scriptures. On the one hand, it highlights the prophetic and apostolic vocation. Thus, in the Old Testament, we read of Elisha who – upon being called – gave up everything he had to follow Elijah (1 Kings 19:19-21). And the apostles too leave everything behind to follow Jesus (Luke 5:1-11). On the other hand, evangelical poverty also highlights the apostolic mission to preach. This is the focus of today’s reading – the disciples are told to “take nothing for their journey except a staff” (Mark 6:8).
Moreover, if we observe the lives of the prophets, the apostles, and – of course – Jesus, we can clearly see that they lived poor lives. So, there seems to be a connection between preaching and poverty. What is that connection? Why is poverty so important for the preacher? Indeed, why is it so important to us, friars of the Order of Preachers, who take vows of poverty? To answer this, I propose three points of reflection.
Trust in God
The first point – and probably the most obvious point – is that poverty teaches us to trust in God’s Providence. For most of us, the idea of living a life of radical evangelical poverty is a scary one. I remember thinking this a few weeks ago, while a group of us were watching the documentary film “Into Great Silence”, on the life of the Carthusians. As I was watching it, I remember feeling rather terrified at the thought of living such a radically simply life. This, in turn, made me wonder how the Carthusians were able to live in such a way. And I think the answer to this is a steadfast trust in God
I think also that this is not just about material poverty, but also pertains to spiritual poverty. Many of us, I think, find it difficult to give up certain vices, sins, or luxuries that have become obstacles to our relationship with God. And I think it’s because, deep down, we find it difficult to trust in God – to trust that He is truly good for us, that He loves us, that we can be truly happy if we give these things up.
But trusting in God is easier said than done! I’m sure it is obvious to all of us that we ought to trust in God – we’re often told as much from the pulpit. But we’re not often taught how to trust in God. I think it would, however, be a mistake to take a ‘me-centred’ approach. That is to say, to think that it is difficult to trust God because I am not brave enough, or not holy enough, or not prayerful enough, etc. And if only I could be more courageous, more holy, more prayerful, then I could learn to trust in God.
Rather, I think that we learn to trust in God by focusing on God’s love for us. We know and we have experienced the great depths of God’s love, because Jesus Christ has revealed it to us. And if God loves us so much, that He was even willing to die for us, then learning to accept His love is the first step in learning to trust in Him, who surely will never stop loving us. And so, poverty directs us to trust in God’s unfailing love.
The second point is that poverty teaches us to be humble. The poor preacher is dependent on the generosity of others; and this is true not just materially, but also spiritually. Because we ourselves our sinners, we also depend on the forgiveness and patience of others. Poverty teaches us that everything we have – materially and spiritually – does not belong to us. We are not worthy of our vocation as preachers, and yet God has given us such a wonderful gift. The words and the message we preach are not our own words and message. Instead, we preach Jesus Christ, the Word of God. Everything we have comes from God.
I think this is important because, in any active ministry or apostolate, it is tempting to make our preaching all about ourselves. It is very easy to want to preach so that others can see how clever I am, or how eloquent I am, or how holy I am, etc. And it can also be tempting to think that any success I enjoy in preaching is because of my own efforts.
But poverty teaches us that it is not because of our own strength or resources that we succeed. For instance, recall how God stripped Gideon’s army down to a mere 300 men in order to battle the Midianites (Judges 7). He did this so that Gideon would know that their victory was not because of their own strength or cleverness, but because of God. So, poverty also, by stripping us of what we have, teaches us that our victories are not our own. They are God’s victories.
Finally, poverty teaches us to give glory to God. Indeed, since everything we have is a gift from God, we should not guard our abilities jealously, as if to preserve them. Rather, they should be shared generously and used to glorify God. I think that this is what true humility looks like.
True humility does not involve denying or downplaying our talents and gifts. Instead, the humble person acknowledges his abilities but recognises that they are given to him by God. So also, in our preaching, poverty teaches us that we should primarily seek to glorify God. This is why the prophet Jeremiah writes: “Thus says the LORD: ‘Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, let not the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches; but let him who glories glory in this, that I am the LORD who practice steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth; for in these things I delight, says the LORD’” (Jeremiah 9:23-24).
So, let us pray to God for the grace to shed everything that might hold us back from Him. And let us ask Him for the strength to live truly simple lives, worthy of the vocation of a preacher.
Image: The Prophet Amos – Gustave Dore. Courtesy of WikiArt: link