Sometimes I don't think we really understand the depth of change that being a disciple of Jesus mandates on us.
I've started listening to a series of short prayer sessions, called "Pray As You Go," from Pray-as-you-go.org, a website maintained by Jesuit Media Initiatives of the UK. The sessions are downloadable as MP3 files, among other formats, and can be used to help focus one's meditation at the start of each day. There are other resources available on the site, and I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to enhance their practice of contemplation and prayer.
As I was driving to work this morning, I listened to the session for this third week of Advent, based on a passage from the Gospel of Luke. The passage, Luke 14:28-35, contained, among other things, the following message:
"In the same way therefore not one of you can be my disciple if he does not renounce all his own possessions."
I found that bit very troubling, because just minutes before, even as I was getting ready to listen to the session, I had been thinking about the economic house-cleaning that Jesus' new order seems to mandate. It was as if my thoughts were being prepared to hear something straight from the gospel, and once I was receptive, the message was delivered.
Let me try to unpack what I was thinking as I heard that passage, and as I thought about it afterward.
Prior to hearing the passage from Luke, I was reflecting on how our economic life is oriented toward the accumulation of wealth, the prudent use of that wealth, and the maintenance of that wealth. We have elaborate accounting systems for our wealth; we have currency exchanges for converting from one monetary system to another, for instance, just as we have complex markets that trade in the very currency itself, as well as in the things that it represents.
Our money manages us, in some ways, just as we manage our money. Our expectations of what we can acquire are controlled by what we can earn, save, borrow, and afford to spend. We do mental gymnastics over which high-def TV we really want, debating the value of various features, what size screen we really need, and so forth. Our goals direct us. Our desire for just the right "stuff" guides and focuses our efforts.
The availability of ready credit determines if work gets done, or doesn't. And how wrong can this be? How mistaken is this, in the real world? Look--the poor are poor, whether there is money for aid projects or not. The hungry are still hungry, the sick are still suffering illness, the oppressed are still being ground into the dirt by the oppressors. These realities exist regardless of whether or not someone can marshal the resources to address them. And what are the resources I'm talking about? I'm not referring to manpower, to equipment, to fuel for planes and vehicles, or for computer and communications gear. I'm talking about money. The money to address these needs is either there or it's not.
Is this rational? Is this acceptable to God? Is it conscionable to him that his creatures defer from aiding in a famine, or righting wrong, or healing the sick or comforting the dying, because they can't get funding?
I know it's not that simple. I know that the valuation placed on things is a way of managing scarce resources, so that needs and wants can be met with finite means. But I also am convinced that needs and wants are not the same thing, and that our finite means are a lot more abundant than we imagine.
Does anyone really doubt that every person in this world could be fed, if the production of the world's arable ground could be distributed more wisely?
Does anyone really imagine that all the children of this world would not be educated if the resources available world-wide could be placed where the people are?
Does anyone really think that human suffering wouldn't be affected and reduced if drinking water could be purified, or if sources of disease could be quarantined, or if shelter could be provided?
Does anyone truly think that people wouldn't live better lives if selfish dictators weren't stripped of power?
We have more important things to do with our money, of course. We've got to build up our armies. We've got to put up new sports stadiums. We have to put in more lanes on the freeways so we can support the increased traffic to and from the suburbs and the urban core.
"...not one of you can be my disciple if he does not renounce all his own possessions."
I can't get over the notion that most of us are pretty far from being true disciples of Jesus, as he himself defined it. Being converted is one of the hardest things in the world. What do we truly need to live purposeful, meaning-filled lives?
Even as we get ready to celebrate the birth of Jesus with gifts and presents, I can't help but wonder just how close I am to the one I call my Lord.