James Martin, S.J.: The more we give, the freer we are

A Jesuit priest advises a Protestant minister how to talk about money. We need a culture of giving, transparency, and an invitation to freedom.

In the ancient church, a young monk would approach an elder and ask, 'Abba, may I have a word?' Tom Arthur, in his first year out of seminary, seeks advice from elders in these letters. The letter to which James Martin replies is here.

Dear Pastor Arthur,

What terrific questions! I’m sure that John Wesley (not to mention Jesus of Nazareth) would want you to ask those very questions of yourself and of your congregation.

You’re right: Money is the great, and perhaps the last, taboo in polite society. People will talk with their friends and relatives about their illnesses, their marital problems, struggles with their children, and difficulties at work, but not about their salaries. Why? Because salary and wealth are, unfortunately, standards by which people are measured. Comparing salaries brutally puts you in your place. If it turns out you make less than someone else, you feel less. If you make more, you are tempted to feel like a more important person.

Wealth has become our society’s measure of a person’s worth. So it’s a sensitive subject.

As I see it, though, you’re asking two questions.

First, what is the role of giving in the church community?

Second, what is the value of simple living?

Now, as a Catholic priest, I can say that we Catholics are even at a greater disadvantage than some other Christian denominations when it comes to giving. Many Catholics still drop just a dollar bill into the collection basket each Sunday -- for reasons too numerous to mention (here’s just one: we have much less of a history of lay participation and therefore lay responsibility). At the very least, the tradition of supporting one’s church is more ingrained in other Christian denominations. So we Catholics often look with envy to other to the experience of other denominations on this issue!

But back to your first question. Much of this has to do with stewardship and transparency. And both are the responsibility of the church leadership, who must help people grasp that this is their church, for which they are responsible; and, concurrently, who must ensure transparency about church finances. And it does help, I believe, for a pastor to know the level of “giving” for each parishioner, in order that the pastor may more accurately map out the church’s financial future (likewise, it helps the pastor be more grateful -- knowing, for example, that an unemployed congregant has not dropped his level of giving is an occasion for great gratitude to that person, and to God).

It’s also important for all congregants to know precisely how much the church spends, what it needs, and who is managing the funds. I’m sure all Christians would agree on that.

What they might not all agree on is the value of simple living and, likewise, giving a good deal of their money away. That’s your second question.

As someone who lives according to a “vow of poverty” (that’s part of my life as a Jesuit priest) I’ve found that the more I give away, the freer I am. Of course, most people aren’t called to live precisely like this. For one thing, we need shelter, clothing, food. That goes double for families: they need money for all those things for their children, as well as for education and other needs. Obviously, we all need possessions.

But not as much as we think we do.

My model in all of this is the early church. The first Christians lived very simply, shared things in common, and gave much to the poor. Why?

Not simply because they wanted to care for one another, but because Jesus knew that an overattachment to possessions keeps on bound, enslaved, unfree. Giving things away -- even out of your “want,” as the poor widow does in the Gospels -- is not only a response to the call of Jesus to care for the “least,” but is also freeing. You have less to worry about. Less that comes between you and God.

Thus, one way to encourage people to live simply is to -- rightfully -- present it not as a duty or obligation, but as an invitation: to freedom, to happiness, to generosity to the community and to a closer following of Christ.

Jesus was always inviting. Why not do the same here?

The Rev. James Martin is a Catholic priest and author of "The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything."