The story strikes terror into the heart of middle class Westerners like me: surely this is not a command for everyone, at all times?
When we think of a theology of simplicity we need to remember that we are under grace, not law. Grace leads us to whatever form of discipleship towards our material goods – and the way we conduct our lives – to which God calls.
There are many forms of spiritual practice which are drawn out of our experience of God and which in turn shape our further experience of God. One of these is the practice of simplicity.
Simplicity is firmly based in our spiritual writings, the lives of the saints who have gone before us and in the teachings of the church.
We start as always with the basic truth of our existence … it is good, we have plenty. It is in relationship that we are made and live our lives; relationship with God, with each other and with the Earth.
Trust in God is the most fundamental part of our relationship, and the biblical testimony is that this trust is hard to maintain. Some things make it harder: especially forgetting to whom we owe everything. If God has given us life and the earth to live it in, why would we not simply rejoice and trust? Material prosperity can hide this fact and make it harder to trust. The middle class ideal of independence is opposite to dependent on God in because she is used to depending on God from one day to the next.
Love for others is our primary responsibility after loving God. Material prosperity should be the occasion for generosity towards those who have less. The reality is that prosperity makes it harder to share. The scripture who hoard their excess beyond their own needs, or who exploit the poor and are condemned. Yet there are also lovely stories of the wealthy band of women who supported Jesus or who used their big houses as venues for the early church.
Simplicity, says Richard Foster, is one of those spiritual disciplines most fraught with difficulty. It is too easy to assume a simple life out of entirely the wrong motives out of fear because God has commanded it, or out of pride (my minimalism is more extreme than yours), or out of a desire to look holy (rather than being holy, which often looks quite the opposite).
Simplicity has both an internal and an external work. Internally we are helped by prayer and meditation, by confession and self-knowledge towards that glad, open-hearted renunciation of our independence and search for material things, which St Francis had. We learn to s provision for us everywhere.
Simplicity will lead us into a consideration of what we value and why we do what we do, which may in turn give us courage to do less. Doing less is the way to freedom.
Externally, simplicity will be different for everyone, but will most often be marked with a sense of the difference between needs and wants and a strong sense of obligation to use what we have in the service of God’s rule on Earth.
Eira Clapton is an Anglican deacon and also the justice and mission assistant at the Uniting Church Centre.