Spring 1985, Vol. 37, pp. 4-12.

John Sheila Galligan:
      The Tension between Poverty and Possessions in the Gospel of Luke

No fanatic about renunciation of possessions, Jesus nevertheless warned us that they could hinder our being open to the Kingdom and that we have to use them for others welfare.

Sister Galligan, I.H.M., is a religious educator. She prepared this article while engaged in a study program at the University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) in Rome.

DEFTLY drawing attention to the varied and rich nuances in Jesus' teaching on poverty, Luke paints a kaleidoscopic picture of this concept in his Gospel. Poverty involving renunciation and its ramifications, possessions entailing their proper and positive use these themes pulse through the depths as well as on the surface of his work. But even a surface searching of the text reveals that this subject of "poverty" bristles with difficulties. There is a repetitious insistence upon the necessity of renouncing goods in order to stimulate a trustful attitude of receptivity to the kingdom of God. Yet there seems to be an equally demanding emphasis upon using possessions to help others with positive spiritual results. Although Luke "consistently talks about possessions, he does not talk about possessions consistently.(1) Since a tension emerges between the challenge of personal renunciation and the proper use of personal possessions, it is difficult to delineate and define a clear notion. The two perspectives (complete abandonment on the one hand, and using possessions wisely on the other) are neatly interwoven, yet each is capable of an extension and development of far-reaching import. An analysis of some of the texts concerning this motif may help us to flesh out, clarify, and concretize the issue.

A key text of inexhaustible import is the Lucan beatitude "Blessed are you poor; the reign of God is yours" (Luke 6:20).(2) These few words form the crux and heart of Jesus' attitude and teaching. For while recognizing and respecting people's existential need for material things, Jesus emphatically asserts that the "poor" manifest a deep hope and trust in God. Acutely aware of their dependence and need, they are most gratefully receptive to the Kingdom. Throughout Luke's narrative it is usually the poor who readily receive, and trustingly respond to, Jesus' proclamation. The rich are smugly secure, resting in comfortable inertia -- self-reliant, self-sufficient, self-satisfied. Their "possessions" present an ever-present obstacle to their spiritual growth. Jesus shrewdly notes (and reality corroborates his wisdom) that a lack of material possessions, a being "poor," facilitates a wholehearted response to God's gift of mercy and love. The very need and lack of resources become a blessing when they leave people free and disposed to accept the enriching good news of salvation.

This insight is illustrated in the Gospel accounts of the negative responses to God's invitation. For "the characteristic aspect of the Lucan treatment of the excuses is their involving quality. Those invited are so entangled by, so preoccupied with their acquisitions (property and wife) that they are deaf to the call."(3) In contrast, the poor, experiencing the Father's love and providential care (Luke 12:30), possess the Kingdom now. The verb in the Beatitude is present tense: the Kingdom "is" theirs! God's penchant for reversing human notions of what is right and reasonable is clearly perceptible here. All that is treasured by women and men is of no enduring worth in God's sight, and real abiding treasure involves earthly poverty. A paradoxical transformation of earthly values is indicated.

Since Jesus fully pierced the prism of human experience, he was no stranger to the enigmas of human existence. No one can deny that material poverty is often accompanied by greed and avarice. Mere lack of possessions does not guarantee a corresponding mind and heart ready to receive the Kingdom. Jesus is always well grounded in reality. He was pointing out that the "blessed" poor are those whose need permits the freedom of spirit which is necessary for following him. Freedom from possessions provides an environment for the proper posture of receptivity-freedom from possessions can mean freedom for God. Renunciation of goods becomes a fundamental dimension of the Christian dynamic. It has meaning not in itself but only in relation to the Kingdom.


Luke sharpens Jesus' words concerning complete renunciation: "None of you can be my disciple if he does not renounce all his possessions" (Luke 14:33). A shatteringly stark and uncompromising statement! Jesus indicates that eternal joy (a hoped-for consequence of discipleship) is contingent upon renunciation of all possessions. We must inevitably encounter difficulty with the theoretical and practical implications of this demand. Even greater confusion arises when we note that there is no scriptural evidence that Jesus looked on possessions with a fanatically critical eye. Instead we find that he often associated with the rich, celebrated at their banquets, and was supported by well-to-do women. Just exactly how; then, does one interpret Jesus' statement?

A delicate balancing of values and considerations is called for. There is no specific way to fit Jesus' teaching into a neat cerebral or contextual box, no way to avoid a lack of sharp-edged clarity. For we are indeed embodied spirits, with the God-given right to the possessions necessary for personal realization and growth. Even so, "renunciation" is inextricably linked up with a positive response to the Kingdom. The Lucan Jesus often refers to the necessity for concrete, tangible separation from material goods. Independence and detachment from economic and family ties are the external manifestations of the depth of one's commitment to the Lord and his kingdom. Jesus ordered the Twelve to take nothing for their journeys (Luke 9:3) and the seventy-two (Luke 10:4) received the same instruction. Although no direct exhortation is recorded, Simon, James, and John "left everything and became his followers" (Luke 5:11). Such radical renunciation removes the possibility of absorption (that is, we can so easily underestimate the tenacious grip of material possessions) and helps the disciple to see the real truth of the human condition in relation to material things. A theological issue asserts itself here, for to seek security and a measure of independence in created things is to misunderstand created things. A sense of possessions, but no sense of possessiveness, is the appropriate attitude for human beings. Jesus' demand for renunciation underlies Augustine's description of the restless heart which can rest fully only in God.

Possessions and riches can smother and stifle growth; renunciation can make one free and truly in possession of both self and God. This key insight is crystallized in the story of the rich young man, that self-righteous leader who rejoiced in strictly observing the commandments, but who was so involved with his wealth that he could not respond to Jesus' call to sell all and become a disciple. In this instance (Luke 18:24) we see that riches proved to be the great obstacle to responding positively to Jesus. The man could not "let go," could not see the shallowness, the transient hollowness of possessions. He succumbed to the subtle call of "things." There seems to be an inherent tendency in people to be drawn by the seductive lure of the power, pleasure, and security that are the by-products of being wealthy.

The notion of renunciation is implicitly alluded to in Jesus' saying: "Whoever wishes to be my follower must deny his very self, take up his cross each day, and follow in my steps. Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Luke 9:23-24). A correlation between the "self' and "possessions" is established. "The hoarding or seeking of possessions is equated with trying to preserve the self. The result is loss of both possessions and self."(4) A price must be paid for true life -- the price of renunciation. And one must be ready for the challenge of the demand. Abnegation and mortification will be two critical elements in responding to the call to leave all.

The necessity for renunciation seems quite lucid and clear, but then Jesus seems to explicitly revoke his requirement of complete abandonment (Luke 22:35). Now he tells the disciples to take provisions: to be prepared with material goods which will help further the work of the Kingdom. We also note Zaccheus, a disciple who is spontaneously ready to give half his possessions to the poor, but who is not required to give up all his possessions (Luke 19:8f.). The basic principle that emerges is that one must be free from an undue concern and attachment to things and, consequently, free to use created things, to rely on the goodness and gifts of others, but not to hoard what is received.

This evident tension between personal possessions and proper use of earthly goods is a creative and dynamic one. Renunciation empties the heart, making it receptive to God who molds the soul-lines, the inscape of the heart. Possessions must be used, not for self, but in service of the growth of the Kingdom. Reverence and respect for possessions is essential; renunciation and detachment will keep one's perspective an ordered one. Clearly, for the Christian, the stance toward possessions is an indication, a symbol, of his or her interior disposition.


Possessions form an integral part of life. As human beings we can be sanctified only in time and space and flesh. And so the Gospel speaks of those who are poor and those who have plenty and "neither one nor the other is outside the realm where the Father's will can be done."(5) A look at some of the relevant texts concerning the proper "use" of possessions can further elucidate Jesus' unique attitudes and demands.

In Luke 12:13-14 Jesus refuses to become involved in passing judgment on a problem of inheritance. Quarreling, jealousy, sel-flove -- two brothers have become involved in the tangled web of problems that an overinvolvement with possessions can so easily create. No attempts are made to trim or trivialize the import of the situation. Jesus does not appear to be interested in the "facts of the case" because there is "one outstanding fact which makes all the rest insignificant; the fact that two men . . . are separated and antagonized over the possession of a piece of property."(6) Jesus acts with his characteristic wisdom. A decision concerning this particular case is not what is really needed. Rather, the elimination of that which is the source of the strife is called for. This decision can be made only by the brothers themselves; they must make a deliberate choice to uproot the covetousness that lies so deeply within their hearts.

Jesus wastes no time with irrelevant rhetoric with them but, with incisive spontaneity, accentuates the importance of "avoiding greed in all its forms" (Luke 12:15). It is beneficial to note that the Greek word used here means "to be present in superfluity." The person has more than he or she needs.(7) Again Jesus affirms peoples right to have their basic needs fulfilled, while at the same time he pinpoints the negative, destructive notion of desiring more.

This crucial concept is enhanced in the Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:16-21). In it Jesus recognizes that the "law of the Kingdom requires that superfluous fruits be spent in ways beneficial to the poor . . . . To labor to earn one's own keep is right, to desire more is covetousness."(8) The rich man is depicted as having an exaggerated estimate of his own capacity to control his life. The disastrous consequence of such self-centeredness is sharply and ironically illustrated. Again Luke's choice of vocabulary is instructive, for he indicates that the man deliberately contrived and calculated what to do. But again an ironic twist of fortune results: the man's solicitude was in vain as the sudden spectre of death destroyed his great plans.

It is evident that the tendency to provide unnecessary comfort and security is criticized. Yet there is more, for the motif of a correct use of possessions is also soundly portrayed. The rich man could have used his earthly abundance in a creative and responsible way. His riches could have been a source of blessing if he had unselfishly given to the poor. He missed having both friends on earth and treasure in heaven! Shakespeare encapsulates the tenor and thrust of Jesus' message in poetic form:

Why so large a cost, having so short a lease
Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend? . . .
. . . within be fed, without be rich no more.       (9)
The parable presents in an unusually coherent and persuasive form the paradoxical fact that one who "regards wealth as a means of acquiring perfect happiness in this life . . . becomes what he loves; if he loves what perishes, he too shall perish."(10)

Expressed with consummate simplicity, the tremendous one-liner: "Wherever your treasure lies, there your heart will be" (Luke 12:34), focuses upon the significance of one's basic stance toward possessions. It"is a salient feature of Jesus' teaching that the heart's disposition cannot be centered on earthly possessions. The heart must be centered on God, in whom alone true power and security rest.


The wise use of possessions is also the basic thrust of the much discussed Parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1-8). Scholars seem smothered in a ferment of conflicting ideas concerning the steward and his behavior. It seems that the man is commended for his worldly-wise "savvy" and his clever (underhanded?) stratagem to provide himself with security. The main point, however, is to affirm that, as the steward used possessions to secure a place for himself, so should the disciples.(11) It is definitely not the steward's method which is praised but, rather, his prudence in taking stock of his situation, using his business acumen, and acting decisively. The underlying meaning is subtle and profound. The disciples must take heed, grasp the seriousness of the need to respond to Jesus' call, and deliberately set out with a positive sense of self-interest to inherit the Kingdom. With forthrightness and vigor Jesus presses his point: "What I say to you is this: Make friends for yourselves through your use of this world's goods, so that when they fail you, a lasting reception will be yours" (Luke 16:9). To dispose of worldly wealth in the proper way is to gain the friendship of God.

A series of provocative sayings (Luke 16:9-13) further stresses this notion. In this collection, the word mammon comes to the fore with a pertinent incisiveness. In rabbinic writing it meant not merely money in the strict sense, but a person's possessions, everything that had value equivalent to money. Jesus insists that one is not to cling to mammon but to use it for the benefit of others. Mammon can be dealt with effectively only by converting it from selfish to unselfish uses.

With rather deliberate bluntness the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) concretely illustrates the divine reversal theme of the first Beatitude and woe. Completely preoccupied with enjoying his possessions, the rich man's callous selfishness springs from his conviction that death ends all.(12) Neglecting his responsibility toward those in need and ignoring poor Lazarus, he thinks only of himself and the present moment. He had not even interiorized or integrated his own religious tradition into his life, for both the Law and the Prophets indicated that one should use money to help others (cf. Deut. 14:28-29; 15:11; 24:15; 25:13-19). Lazarus, then, had a right to hospitality. As one of the sons of Abraham, he was entitled to care. Dreadful consequences follow. The rich man's faulty illusions are destroyed. He failed to see that possessions place one in a state of "crisis"-a word that connotes two meanings: danger and opportunity. He had an opportunity to help Lazarus and failed to act. He also failed to store up treasure in heaven and so lost all. In the afterlife he keenly felt the crunch of utter helplessness and frustration. The disciple of Jesus must take note of the warning: possessions must be dealt with in a positive way. Jesus stresses the seriousness of the situation, the lasting effects of one's present choices.

Lending penetrating perspective to the same type of failure to use possessions in a responsible way, the Parable of the Talents (Luke 19:11-27) accentuates the ill effects of over-caution and cowardice. Here we are told of the man who confessed that he had been afraid to risk using his master's money, had carefully hoarded it, and was then ready to restore precisely the sum received. In his blindness and egoism, in seeking a deceptive and false security, he, like the rich man, failed to respond to a grand opportunity. Because he made absolutely no attempt to use material goods wisely, he lost out completely. The parable is a refined résumé of Lucan themes. An irresponsible attitude fosters death, not life. Jesus pleads, threatens, warns, and encourages his disciples to respond with enthusiasm and wholehearted confidence. Fine words are not an adequate response. A true disciple must be concretely concerned about the welfare of others. Giving to the poor expresses one's spirit of detachment and is also a means of gaining true treasure and life in the Kingdom.

So the terms are set, and the challenge of renunciation and the proper use of possessions are succinctly stated-or are they? We are treading on tentative ground when we try to pin down, and set specific limits on, Jesus' teaching. Efforts to enflesh and concretize the ideal of poverty must always end up being illusive and paradoxical. Little wonder that it has been recently stated that "no single word, perhaps, in the entire tradition of Christian spirituality has proved itself so capable of creating such instant confusion as the word poverty."(13)

An analysis of the biblical texts in Luke reveals that Jesus really preached one principle to all: a dependence on the goodness of God that would prevent one from a false dependence on material, created goods. Possessions in themselves are neither inherently good or bad; it is the choices that one makes concerning them that determines their significance. Two basic strands of thought permeate the Lucan perspective. Renunciation is absolutely necessary for a disciple because possessions can be an obstacle and a danger in the spiritual life. And the proper use of material goods that are nonessential to the disciple is to be manifested in the positive act of helping those in need.

The complexity of the issue of living out the tension and dialectic is no excuse for complacency. Called to "follow" as disciples who "hear the word of God and keep it," we can pray to interiorize Jesus' challenging demands and, through the presence and power of his Spirit within us, make an effort to express poverty of fact and spirit in our daily lives.


  1. Luke T. Johnson, The Literary Function of Possessions in Luke-Acts (Missoula, Montana: Scholars Press, 1977), p. 130.
  2. All quotations are taken from the New American Bible (New Jersey: Catholic Publishers 1971).
  3. Johnson, Literary Function of Possessions, p. 146.
  4. Ibid., p. 150.
  5. A. Gelin, The Poor of Yahweh (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1964), p. 102.
  6. T.W. Manson, The Sayings of Jesus (London: SCM Press, 1961), p. 271.
  7. J. Derrett, "The Rich Fool: A Parable of Jesus concerning Inheritance," Heythrop Journal 18 (1977): 135.
  8. Ibid., p. 150.
  9. Sonnet 146.
  10. John Navone, Themes of St. Luke (Rome: Gregorian University Press, n.d.), pp. 108-9.
  11. Johnson, Literary Function of Possessions, p. 157.
  12. Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus (New York: Scribner, 1963), p. 130.
  13. James Walsh, "Introduction," Supplement to the Way 9 (1978): ii.