Radical Lives

There is a scripture which has always bothered me. Sometimes it bothers me so much that I almost daren't read it, or else, when I do, I am apt to sort of skim over it, and try to ignore its implications...

Now a man came up to Jesus and asked, "Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?" "Why do you ask me about what is good?" Jesus replied. "There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, obey the commandments." "Which ones?" the man inquired. Jesus replied, " 'Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honour your father and mother,' and 'love your neighbour as yourself.'" "All these I have kept," the young man said. "What do I still lack?" Jesus answered, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. Matthew 19:16-22

I am well aware that I am very rich (at least by 'global' standards). But there is also the question of if I were to take this passage literally and go and sell my possessions, how would I live? One question which springs to mind on that note is 'does my house count as a possession?' I have the feeling (which may well not be from God), that to interpret this passage any way other than literally is to risk diluting it, and not be taking it seriously. But if I take it literally, it would seem that I am condemned - unable truly to follow Christ. Nevertheless, let us see if we can legitimately re-interpret the passage, without diluting its intent.

First of all, I note that Jesus' words above are aimed at a single individual, rather than being a general pronouncement. So it may well be that the specifics don't apply universally, but that the general principle enshrined therein is a good one - though that does smell a little bit like a cop-out! Secondly, we aren't actually condemned by not selling all our possessions - as Jesus said: "If you want to be perfect…" - so it's about striving for perfection, rather than settling for 'second best' (but is 'second best' possible with God? - perhaps we should explore mediocrity, and God's desire for his children in another post)

The New Testament contains another, much more general (and universally applicable?) warning about 'materialistic' culture from Jesus' lips:

"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." Matthew 6:19-21 (NIV)

We all need somewhere to live. We need food. In order to get food, most of us need to work to earn money to buy the food. And most of us need to travel to our work, and that can mean that we need a car (depending on the journeys we need to make). So we can easily see that there are various possessions we need, just to 'survive' in the Western World. But there are those, even in our rich society, who have no permanent roof over their heads, and who routinely go hungry.

So we're in a difficult place... It's hard to live a life, in our society, in which we aren't surrounded by 'things'. But I think that, as Christians, we are called to live radical lives. Perhaps not radical in a John the Baptist sense, wearing a hair shirt and eating locusts and honey, but by being different, and not necessarily living life in quite the way society expects. Small things can make a big difference to how we're perceived, particularly if lots of us do them!

We live in a society where frugality is seen as a bad thing. The aim is, always, to have more, bigger and better. But what does that actually gain you? Perhaps you are more 'comfortable'... But are you? Physically, perhaps - but you have added worries, such as the fear of losing it all through, for instance, burglary or fire. Unless you're very sensible (most people aren't) you rack up debts, which have to be serviced, so you have to work harder, and you have the worry about what happens if you're ill, or can't work - how will you afford it all? Almost without thinking, you have become a slave to this world and its ways! The bible says:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God---this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is---his good, pleasing and perfect will. Romans 12:1-2

Perhaps this changed attitude to material possessions is one more way in which we can begin to be transformed. I think perhaps we're called, in these days, to be different in this. Perhaps, as a start, we should eschew the use of credit. If I want, for example, a new television, perhaps I shouldn't just go and buy it on credit. Maybe I should put a little money aside each week or each month, in a savings account, until I've got the money together and only then buy the television! I'd probably be being a better steward of the money I've been entrusted with, because I'm not paying extra for the privilege of having whatever it was I wanted - in fact, in a savings account, one's money will have actually grown (albeit by very little these days!).

I sometimes wonder too about the 'property ladder' - keeping on moving into bigger and 'better' houses as we can 'afford' them (or, at least, afford the payments)? Do we only do it because that's what everybody does? People seem to think that they're richer if they have a bigger, better, house. In a sense, that may be true - indeed, in certain, limited, situations (like selling a house in an expensive area to move to a cheaper area) it may literally be true. But, most of the time, money sunk in property is just that - sunk. Unless you're prepared to live under a hedge somewhere, you can't ever liquidate the asset - you need a house - the climate here doesn't make living under hedges comfortable or healthy! So, I'd say, stay in an adequate house - enough rooms and facilities to live comfortably. And if you're earning more than you were, and could afford a bigger mortgage, why give in to the temptation? Why not give the money away - to the church and to charities like Tearfund, Christians Against Poverty, and the like. We should remember that there are people who do sleep under hedges and on park benches.

We're apt to take that passage from Romans 12 as a purely cerebral one. But I suggest that we ought to allow the principle of transformation to spill over into the physical, practical, part of our lives. We should onsider what we do, and what we buy, as well as what we think. We should allow God to show us whether the things we do, and the things we buy, are helping us to draw closer to Him, or whether they're building a wall between Him and us.

I think that, if we have plenty, we are called to be generous. We should give to those who have need and to those we love. Even small things, which can seem almost too trivial to bother with, can make a huge difference to someone else. We should be generous with our time too - even in the small things. Since becoming churchwarden, I sometimes feel the need to sit at the back. There are a number of homeless people who sit in the lounge during services, rather than in the main part of church. I have started to go out to them during the 'Peace' before communion, to shake their hands and greet them. It's a small thing, it costs me nothing, and yet to them it does seem to make a difference - they greet me when they see me now - whether in church or around town. I'd like to think that, in that small thing, I've made one more small step towards re-integrating them into society.

But, I hear you say, what about tomorrow? How careful ought we to be to ensure that we save enough to live comfortably in our old age? I would say, let tomorrow worry about itself! we don't know when we'll die, or when the Lord might return. We should leave our future to God. If He really is God, and he really does love you, He will see that you have shelter and enough to eat.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, `What shall we eat?' or `What shall we drink?' or `What shall we wear?' For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. Matthew 6:25-34

I'm not saying 'don't save', but I am saying don't become a slave to it; allowing the amassing of money to rule over your thoughts and control your actions will most likely rob you of the richness of God's blessings.

Copyright Phil Hendry, 2022