The Simple Life of Jesus, by Simon Ussher

Below is Simon Ussher’s chapter on Jesus, from the anthology Simple Living in History: Pioneers of the Deep Future. A suitable post for these days leading up to Christmas.

‘Hail, queen wisdom! May the Lord save thee with thy sister holy pure simplicity!’ – St. Francis of Assisi

At its heart the ‘voluntary simplicity’ movement is about a value shift. Adherents may display a commonality of practices, but no practice is common to all, and none capture the essence of what voluntary simplicity is at its core. The essence of the movement is not the practice; it is the informing principles.

Despite our eclectic backgrounds and motivations, voluntary simplicity tends to bring people together into a wonderful congruity. This way of life generally involves an eschewing of the messages of consumerism and materialism, and a reassertion of the value of people and time over money, environment over profit, and community over corporation. This association of seemingly unrelated values is not as arbitrary as it may appear, for the messages of consumerism and materialism do indeed risk eroding more than just our bank accounts.

In recent times social scientists such as Tim Kasser have highlighted how certain sets of values exist in conflict; that the values we espouse have something of a see-saw like quality, where an increase in one necessitates a decrease in a certain other. As materialistic values increase, often there is an accordant decrease in ‘pro-social’ values and concern for the environment. In contrast, those values that have been demonstrated to support psychological and physical wellbeing, termed ‘intrinsic values’ by Kasser and colleagues, tend to promote personal, social and environmental wellbeing and help to immunise people against materialism (Kasser, 2002).

And yet this insight is not as new as it may seem. Indeed, it is one of the few clear points of agreement amongst the great religious sages of history, and an uncompromising aspect of Jesus’ ministry in particular. Jesus warned his disciples of this conflict in clear and literal terms: ‘No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money’ (Matt 6:24 NIV). Jesus paints the same picture that Kasser does today: there is a direct conflict between the values of money, materialism and consumerism, and those of people, community and creation.

The Opposition of Materialism and the Kingdom

A clear theme throughout Jesus’ ministry was the conflict between seeking God and seeking money (personified as Mammon in some gospel translations). The Gospels contain a glaring lack of discussion pertaining to sexual orientation, gender roles, church organisation, or other items of dogma, but return again and again to the subject of money and materialism. As we read in the gospels: ‘What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?’ (Matt 16:26 NIV).

Similarly, in the parable of the sower, Jesus discusses with his disciples those things that may render a life ‘unfruitful’. Likening them to the various fates of seed sown by a farmer, he describes seed that ‘fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants so that they did not bear grain’. He goes on to explain to his disciples that this seed represents those whose lives are rendered unfruitful by ‘the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things’ (Mark 4:3-20 NIV).

On another occasion Jesus was approached by a wealthy young man, asking ‘Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’. Jesus responded by exhorting the young man to follow the commandments: ‘do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honour your father and mother.’ ‘All these I have kept since I was a boy’, responded the young man. ‘One thing you lack’, Jesus responded. ‘Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.’ The young man left Jesus, saddened by his response and the dilemma he now faced. We do not have record of what the young man subsequently decided, but his reaction prompted Jesus to declare to his followers: ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God’ (Mark 10:17-25 NIV).

Perhaps this theme was at its most symbolic when Jesus entered Jerusalem and proceeded to the temple. Incensed by what he found, what follows is one of the most emotional scenes recorded in the gospels. Jesus physically drives out the money changers and those other traders selling sheep, cattle and doves, telling them they had reduced the temple from a ‘house of prayer’ to a ‘den of robbers’ (Matt 21:12-13 NIV). Notably, this is the only gospel record of Jesus ever using violence, albeit mild, in that he made a whip of cords and physically overturned the traders’ tables – an exercise of force he did not show before or since. By contrast when he was arrested prior to his crucifixion he restrained his followers from violence, instead healing one of the arresting soldiers.

The Understanding of the Early Church

The first century church is often looked to for a sense of authenticity, given their chronological proximity to Christ. These early Christians clearly understood the inherent economic implications of the gospel, putting their poss-essions to the service of their fellows and practising a measure of communal ownership.

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need (Acts 4:32-35 NIV).

While not prescriptive or absolute, these practices revealed an attitude toward possessions that clearly valued the humane over the material; an ethos of stewardship rather than ownership. This ethos of stewardship was inseparable from life as a Christian, and the concept of a purely spiritual response to the Gospel was nonsensical. As Peter Oakes notes: ‘In studying the first few centuries of the Christian movement, any attempt to isolate economics from other social factors such as politics would be doomed’ (Oakes, 2009).

In the epistle of James, written sometime in the first or second centuries, we again read of the centrality of an economic response to the gospel. ‘Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world’ (James 1:27 NIV).

Many of these writings of the early Christians later became canonical, and thus informed all later expressions of Christianity.

St. Francis of Assisi

St. Francis was a monk who lived from 1182-1226 and to this day he remains one of the most venerated religious figures in history. The son of a wealthy silk merchant, he turned away from the wealth and privilege of his upbringing and em-braced a life of poverty.

In losing his worldly wealth, he found delight in nature, in all creation, seeing in it the mirror of God. In one of his most popular writings, the ‘Canticle of the Sun’, St. Francis writes:

Be praised, my Lord, through all Your creatures, especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and You give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of You, Most High, he bears the likeness.
Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars;
in the heavens You have made them bright, precious and beautiful.
Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
and clouds and storms, and all the weather,
through which You give Your creatures sustenance.
Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Water; she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.
Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire, through whom You brighten the night. He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.
Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth, who feeds us and rules us, and produces various fruits with coloured flowers and herbs.
Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of You; through those who endure sickness and trial.
Happy those who endure in peace, for by You, Most High, they will be crowned.

St. Francis’ own life, as an expression of the gospel, highlights the inverse relationship between prizing wealth and poss-essions and prizing creation and our fellow brothers and sisters. Even on his deathbed, St. Francis requested that his clothes be removed and he be allowed to die naked, lying on the earth. A fitting departure for a life lived close to the creation, unimpeded by love of wealth.

John Wesley

Continuing the response of the early Christians and St. Francis, John Wesley understood that the gospel has inextricable social and economic implications. Wesley was an eighteenth century Anglican cleric who worked in England and the American colonies. He understood the gospel as intensely social, inherently manifest in our treatment of our fellow human beings, and that personal frugality under-pinned the ability of individuals to contribute to this struggle.

‘Do you not know that God entrusted you with that money’, wrote Wesley, ‘all above what buys necessities for your families, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to help the stranger, the widow, the fatherless; and, indeed, as far as it will go, to relieve the wants of all mankind? How can you, how dare you, defraud the Lord, by applying it to any other purpose?’ (Wesley, 1831).

In 1743 with the number of his followers grown too great to instruct personally, Wesley offered them a set of ‘General Rules’ to govern the ‘United Societies’ his followers had organised into. There was only one condition required of those who desired admission to these societies: ‘a desire to flee from the wrath to come, and to be saved from their sins.’ But Wesley noted that ‘wherever this is really fixed in the soul it will be shown by its fruits’, going on to list a large number of such fruits, many of which were economic, such as ‘feeding the hungry’, ‘clothing the naked’, ‘all diligence and frugality’, and avoiding evils such as ‘laying up treasure on Earth’, ‘needless self indulgence’ and ‘the wearing of gold and costly apparel’ (United Methodist Church, 1973).

Wesley’s understanding of the teachings of Jesus was such that it could not be separated from the use of one’s resources. ‘Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can’, wrote Wesley. He understood that there was a fundamental conflict between the values of the Gospel and those of life as material consumption, and that these rippled out through the societies in which we live. As a result of this understanding, many of his followers became leading lights among movements such as abolitionism and prison reform, as well as sowing the seeds for modern Methodism, the Holiness movement, the Charismatic movement and all the social works that followed.

Modern Challenges

At the dawn of the third millennium since the birth of Jesus, over a third of humanity claim to follow Jesus, albeit to varying degrees. And yet, within this population of over 2.2 billion, Mammon still carries great influence.

Since the 1950s, there has been the spread of ‘prosperity theology’, a message advocating the godly life as a means to material success. The utter antithesis of the gospel, it is nonetheless popular and spreading.

An added challenge, many of the world’s wealthiest and highest consuming citizens are counted among the Christ-ians. As the interconnectedness of our economic and environ-mental actions are understood to an ever greater degree, we can hope that the understanding of how one ought to ‘love thy neighbour’ expands accordingly.

And indeed there is hope. In 2008, echoing the original ‘seven deadly sins’, the Vatican issued the ‘seven social sins’, including environmental pollution, contributing to wealth divides, accumulating excessive wealth and creating poverty.


Christianity in the twenty-first century is diverse in tradition and understanding of the gospel, but the centrality of Jesus is uncontested, and his words leave no doubt as to the obstacle that the love of wealth presents.

In the closing paragraphs of his work ‘The Gospel According To The Son’, Norman Mailer writes, in the voice of Jesus: ‘God and Mammon still grapple for the hearts of all men and all women’. Indeed, the messages of consumerism contest for more than just our brand loyalty, and the noble lives of those practising voluntary simplicity stand in opposition, as ever, doing the Lord’s work and living Jesus’ message two thousand years hence.


Simple Living in History is available here.

No Responses to “The Simple Life of Jesus, by Simon Ussher”

  1. […] [ad_1] The World's Brightest DayIt is Sunday morning, two days af&…; taken! Later Mary goes back and Jesus appears to […]

Leave a Reply

CommentLuv badge