In 1987, I got sober. In 1990, with the law degree I’d earned while drinking, I landed a job as an attorney and started making money for the first time I my life. In 1994, I quit that job in order to embark on the precarious vocation of a writer. In 1996, I converted to Catholicism and joined the Church.
To quit that job as a lawyer was one of the biggest leaps into the unknown, requiring the most heart, of my life. I gave up making $72,000 a year with benefits. I made almost no money from creative writing for the first ten years. I supported myself with a part-time job writing legal motions and briefs. I have never for one second wavered from the knowledge that my decision was right, nor have I for one second regretted it.
Since then, I have, however, become increasingly fascinated by the “economy” described in the Gospels—the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32); the worker who comes late to the vineyard and receives the same pay as those who came early (Matthew 20:1–16); the familiar “No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one, and love the other; or be devoted to one, and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon” (Matthew 6:24).
In fact, Christ had reams to say about money, earning, vocation. “It is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.” “Don’t worry about what you are to eat and what you are to wear, your Heavenly Father knows what you need before you ask him.” “Regard the lilies of the field.” “Blessed are the poor.” “Give the hungry some of your bread and the naked some of your clothing.” “Take with you no purse or bag or sandals.” “If a man asks for your tunic, give him your cloak also.”
While the Church allows for ownership of private property, in a doctrine called “The Universal Destination and the Private Ownership of Goods” she also makes clear that the goods of creation are for the whole human race.
In the beginning God entrusted the earth and its resources to the common stewardship of mankind to take care of them, master them by labor, and enjoy their fruits. The goods of creation are destined for the whole human race. However, the earth is divided up among men to assure the security of their lives, endangered by poverty and threatened by violence. The appropriation of property is legitimate for guaranteeing the freedom and dignity of persons and for helping each of them to meet his basic needs and the needs of those in his charge. It should allow for a natural solidarity to develop between men.
The right to private property, acquired or received in a just way, does not do away with the original gift of the earth to the whole of mankind. The universal destination of goods remains primordial, even if the promotion of the common good requires respect for the right to private property and its exercise.
During his public life, Christ himself seems to have owned few to no private goods and also to have been entirely unconcerned with money. He seems to have carried no money on his person. When he needed a coin for the temple tax, he told Peter to go catch a fish and open its mouth and there he would find a coin. Judas, the one who would betray him, was also the one who kept the purse was probably no accident.
Jesus didn’t despise money; he just didn’t think about money, or at least he didn’t worry about money. He seemed to live in supreme confidence that money would come if and when it was needed.
But Christ had lived for thirty years prior to that. He came from a family that was poor and marginalized. He worked with his hands, presumably beside his father, as a carpenter. He didn’t pull the parable of the workers in the vineyard, the parable of the unjust steward, or the parable of the talents out of thin air.
He’d worked for rich people who had stiffed him, for wealthy merchants who drove a hard bargain, for homeowners who tried to wring out of him every last shekel and never offered him so much as a glass of water while he toiled in the hot sun.
Like us, he had to negotiate contracts, prices, working hours, benefits. Like us, he worked at times, out of necessity, for liars, profiteers, and cheats. Like us, he lived in a time when people tried to make God into a product, a package, a marketing opportunity.
He drove the money-changers out of the temple with a whip. He knew human nature well.
But like his mother, he also pondered these things in his heart. He knew there will always be money-changers in the temple but he also knew that in the Gospel economy, nothing from love is ever wasted: not one lost coin, not a single wandering sheep, not one hair from our heads.
He lifted sore-covered Lazarus from his station by the gate to heaven, while the rich man suffered the torments of hell. He praised the Good Samaritan who bound up the wounds of a stranger and bought him a room for the night. He loved the one who gave much because she had been forgiven much. He marveled at the generosity of spirit in the widow who gave her last two mites.
Clearly, to live with little more than we need is part of the basic Gospel call. Christ helped the deaf to hear, the blind to see, the lame to walk, and the paralytic to get up off his mat. But all those people wanted, desperately, to be healed. Christ can only heal us when we’ve acknowledged how very blind we are, how very deaf, how very paralyzed.
The Gospel journey is precisely about cultivating the desire, the humility, the courage, and the love to uncover these unconscious wounds and self-defeating patterns that can dictate the course of our lives. We get to take a look at our resentments, our fears, the people to whom we owe amends. We get to invite God into every area of our lives—especially the parts that are most conflicted, the most wounded.