Prior to the release of his controversial encyclical letter on the environment, Pope Francis made comments during mass at Domus Sanctae Marthae that provide some of the theological framework for that document. Much has been made about the pope’s blunders regarding science, economics, and politics, but these pale in comparison to his theological errors.
While many of Francis’s critics might not be concerned about theology—choosing, instead, to focus on more secular topics relating to collectivism, “ecological conversion,” and wealth redistribution—it is the pope’s theology on which everything else stands or falls.
“Poverty is at the very center of the Gospel,” Pope Francis declared. “If we remove poverty from the Gospel, no one would be able to understand anything about the message of Jesus.” The poverty Francis is talking about is not spiritual poverty, but economic poverty. He made this abundantly clear when he said, “If faith doesn’t reach your pockets, it’s not a genuine faith.”
Referencing 2 Corinthians 8:9, Francis went on to explain that Jesus Christ, who was rich, with the very richness of God, made himself poor; he lowered himself for us. “This, then is the meaning of the first Beatitude,” Francis said. “‘Blessed are the poor in spirit,’ i.e. ‘to be poor is to let oneself to be enriched by the poverty of Christ, to desire not to be rich with other riches than those of Christ.’” The meaning of Francis’s words is plain: the poverty of Christ is not only spiritual poverty, but also material poverty.
The Poverty of Christ
But does material poverty have anything to do with the gospel of Christ? Francis certainly thinks so, based on his interpretation of 2 Corinthians 8:9. Such a mistake is understandable because the verse is nestled in the midst of Paul’s urging the Corinthian church to give to the poor, and he points to Christ as a model: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he become poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”
Unlike Francis, however, who focuses on the material aspects of Christ’s poverty, Paul is not doing this at all. He is, instead, trying to get the Corinthians to see the importance of giving by comparing the greater to the lesser, not by comparing two things that are necessarily alike. He does this, not by saying, “If Jesus can give up his material wealth, then you Corinthians should too”; he is saying something even more profound. It’s not material wealth Jesus gave up, but eternal glory.
So gracious, so loving, was Jesus that he humiliated himself, not by becoming economically poor, but by emptying himself of his glory—of riches he shared with God before the world was made—and becoming a human being who would die. The poverty of Jesus would have been the same had he lived as a wealthy man—because he would have still been a man. He gave up his glory as the Son of God and became like us to die on a cross for our sins. If he can do that for us, shouldn’t we be willing to do something as easy as giving money to the poor?
To reduce this verse to material poverty is to fail to grasp the significance of Christ’s incarnation. Money has nothing to do with the gospel. When Francis says material poverty is integral to the gospel, he is robbing people of the true message of salvation and the grace of Christ. If material poverty is the “center of the gospel,” Christ is no longer at the center of the gospel. Grace is no longer at the center. Only materialism and works. Francis has, with this statement, exchanged the truth for a lie.
The Poor Will Always Be with You
Francis is reminiscent, in some ways, of the disciples in Bethany. While Jesus was there, a woman anointed him with expensive perfume. When the disciples (and especially Judas) saw what she did, they became indignant and said, “Why this waste? This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.” Jesus rebuked them. “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”
To rightly interpret this scene from Matthew 26 (repeated in Mark 14 and John 12) and to understand why putting material poverty at the center of the gospel is so terribly wrong, we need to look at a verse from the Old Testament that Jesus is quoting. When he says, “The poor you will always have with you,” he is referring to a passage in Deuteronomy 15, which tells of canceling debts in Israel every seven years. At that time, every creditor was commanded to cancel any loan made “by a fellow Israelite.” This was not a grace extended to foreigners—only to God’s people. “You may require payment from a foreigner, but you must cancel any debt your fellow Israelite owes you.” If God’s people were perfectly obedient, there wouldn’t be any poor in Israel (although there would be in the rest of the world).
The passage goes on to say the Israelites were to give generously and without a grudging heart. “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.” Because of many factors in life, including sinful choices, there will always be poverty, but the Israelites were called to take care of one another with generous and loving hearts. Canceling debts was an expression of freedom and grace, but it was only a precursor to something even more wonderful.
It is very significant that Jesus quotes this passage. He isn’t making a prediction per se about the poor always being with them. He is pointing back to the canceling of debts in Israel as a clue to his true purpose. The passage in Deuteronomy is a material foreshadowing of a spiritual reality that Christ would fulfill. Under the old covenant, the Israelites were commanded to cancel financial debts. If they obeyed, there would not be physical poverty in Israel. When the disciples wanted to use the expensive perfume to give money to the poor, Jesus used this opportunity to show them that he is the one who cancels debts, that spiritual blessings, not material, are at the center of his message—and those blessings would be for all people.
When Jesus says, “The poor will always be with you,” he is saying, “I am not here to save you from physical poverty. I am here to free you of your spiritual debts—your sin—to free you from spiritual poverty, and to shower you with spiritual blessings and eternal life. My death will pay all debts, and then, through faith in me, there will be no more spiritual poverty.”
Physical poverty could have been eliminated in Israel under the old covenant if the Israelites had fully obeyed God’s commands. But they couldn’t, as no one can in any time or place, just as they could do nothing to eliminate spiritual poverty. The old covenant of works was insufficient. Only Jesus could fulfill God’s requirements perfectly, and he did so—even to the point of dying on the cross. He died in our place, sinless, so we might be saved—not from material poverty, but from spiritual poverty. His grace cancels our debts. His grace redeems us. We are no longer spiritually poor because of his obedience. Christ is at the center of the gospel. Nothing else. Solus Christus.
Justified By Faith Alone
Pope Francis said, “Poverty is at the very center of the Gospel. If we remove poverty from the Gospel, no one would be able to understand anything about the message of Jesus.” What is the real message of Jesus? It’s told to us in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” The message of Jesus is one of pure grace and love. Every human being is a spiritual pauper, broken, disconnected from God, consumed by sin and selfishness. Without forgiveness, we have no hope of eternal life. It’s only through God’s grace and faith in Jesus that we can lay hold of God’s promises and live in a new heaven and a new earth, as this one will most certainly pass away.
When Francis says economic poverty is at the center of the gospel, he is saying that it is not by faith in Christ alone that we are saved. He is saying there must be more—that we must “reach into our pockets” or our faith is not genuine. But this contradicts what the Bible says in Ephesians 2:8-9: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” Again, in Galatians 2:16: “So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.”
To be justified is to remove the guilt and penalty of sin and to declare one righteous in God’s sight. It is a legal declaration by God, the cancelling of our spiritual debt. But it is more than that; it is imputing Christ’s righteousness, his perfection, onto us and making us holy and righteous before God. We are still imperfect sinners in need of sanctification, but we are declared just by God. The only way we are justified is through faith in Christ because there is nothing we can do to add to Christ’s righteousness, which is why we live by faith. Our justification is an act of pure grace. Sola gratia.
Francis is saying that faith justifies only when we add to it love and good works—particularly giving to the poor. But, as Martin Luther said, “Man is justified by faith, not because by it he obtains the Spirit, and is thus made righteous, but because by faith he lays hold of the righteousness of Christ.”
Responding to those who said works of love should be added to faith to justify, Luther wrote, “We shouldn’t attribute the power of justification to something formed in us that makes us pleasing to God. We must attribute it to faith, which takes hold of Christ the Savior and keeps him in our hearts. . . . We concede that we must also teach about good works and love. But we only teach these at the proper time and place—when the question deals with how we should live, not how we are justified. The question here is this: How do we become justified and receive eternal life? We answer with Paul that we are pronounced righteous through faith in Christ alone, not by our own efforts” (emphasis mine). Sola fide.
Experiencing Spiritual Poverty
Anyone who has fallen on his knees before God, tears streaming down his face because of his spiritual poverty, knows exactly what Luther means. Faith is born out of our awareness that we don’t love, that we don’t care enough for our fellow human beings. If we have to bring something to God to become saved, what do we bring when we have nothing? How much love is enough? How many good works are sufficient? How much money do we give? How much do we sacrifice for others? What does it take to be righteous as God is righteous?
The task is impossible, and to lay it before any person as a requirement for eternal life is to rob them of God’s gift of grace. Genuine faith is the faith that says, “I can’t do it! I need Christ. I need his grace to save my wretched soul. I am empty, poured out, broken. Only God’s love can save me, for I have no love in me, only selfishness. As David said, I am a worm, not a man.”
Our love is not enough even to contribute in part to our salvation. What would it take to redeem a young man who kills nine innocent people in an African-American church in Charleston; or a man who triggers a homemade bomb at a Boston marathon, killing a child, severing limbs, ruining lives; or zealots who rape and mutilate Christian girls and behead Christian men or set fellow Muslims on fire? But even these extreme examples are unnecessary when one looks into the face of God and sees pure love and undefiled righteousness. When one considers the perfection of our creator, who of us can ascend his holy hill? Who can approach his holy throne? Who can survive his refining fire? No one. We are all nothing, and even the best of our good works of love are rubbish before him.
To say to anyone who knows the barrenness of his own heart, “You must do more—you must reach into your pockets for your faith to be true,” is to lessen God’s righteousness and love and to put hurting souls in spiritual bondage. Such a message is cruel, as it robs people of the freedom of grace and oppresses them with the tyranny of legalism.
The Gift of Love
One of the most haunting stories in the Bible is the parable of the unmerciful servant. In Matthew 18, Jesus tells of a man who owed his king 10,000 bags of gold. It was an impossible debt to pay. The king mercifully forgave the man his debt. After receiving such incredible mercy from the king, the man turned around and demanded that a fellow servant repay him a small debt. He grabbed the man and began to choke him. “Pay back what you owe me!” When the king found out what the servant did, he was furious and told him, “I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” The king then turned the man over to the jailers to be tortured until he paid back all he owed.
The parable is a harsh reminder of our duty to others in response to God’s forgiveness. If God has shown us such great mercy by justifying us, who are we to be cruel and unforgiving to others? Ephesians 2 says we are saved by faith, “not by works,” but it also says that we are created as new creatures in Christ to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. As Christians, we are to show love to others, and when we do, we live as a testimony of God’s grace.
Christians don’t always love perfectly, because our life is a constant battle of the flesh against the spirit, but we aim to do good works as part of our new life. We are motivated to give because so much has been given to us. We give from our hearts out of gratitude, not because we want or need anything in return—including our salvation. Faith is first and essential to eternal life, but good works flow from faith in varying to degrees as an expression of that faith.
This is especially true when it comes to giving to the poor (Proverbs 29:7), but it is true for any number of good works, including working hard and being responsible (for if you’re lazy, you will be poor—Proverbs 20:13), using our talents in a profitable way, respecting other people’s lives and private property, not envying what other people have, not being gossips or telling falsehoods, and being good parents, faithful wives and husbands, and obedient children. These are all part of living as a new creature in Christ, and each is an act of love.
At the center of the Christian life is love: Christ’s love for us and our love for others. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13, “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. . . . if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” While we are saved by faith alone, our faith does not stand alone. It gives birth to love, which shines like the brightest star illuminating darkened hearts and leading others to faith and to hope of eternal life where there is no weeping, no cruelty, and no poverty of any kind.
The center of the gospel is Christ. His life. His death. His resurrection. His righteousness. His forgiveness. His love. This message is the greatest gift Christians can give to the poor and to the rich. It is a message for everyone, without exception. It’s a message anyone can understand. It is the healing balm for the sick, the strong arms that carry the weak, the water that quenches the thirsty, the food that fills the hungry, and the hand that lifts the downcast from fear and darkness into light. It is a free gift for all. Soli Deo Gloria.