There was an article in the Mennonite Weekly Review (October 18th edition) several weeks ago that caught my attention. It’s called “Did we really need a car?” and it’s by Celeste Kennel-Shank, former assistant editor for MWR. Here’s the opening paragraphs of the article:
“Four years after we moved to Chicago, my husband and I started talking seriously about buying our first car. For four years we’ve taken public transit, gotten rides from friends, rented cars for longer trips and borrowed vehicles for errands that were less feasible by bus or bicycle.
“It’s possible to rationalize nearly any purchase. We find reasons to justify increasing our petroleum use and adding another possession to the hoard of things we own. I tell myself that we need a car, even when I know that isn’t true, since we have found ways to do without.
“And I can think of friends who use cars even less than we do, going so far as to move cross-country by train rather than U-Haul truck to use fuel more efficiently.
“I also know that Christians are called to more than easy rationalizations in place of sacrifices. We follow a teacher who told us to sell all we own and give the money to the poor.
“Though our economic lives are more complex than that of the rich young man so instructed by Jesus, we can’t pretend there isn’t a word in that for us regarding our relationship with our possessions.
“So how should we buy things – new or used, fancy or modest, as small as a bobby pin or as big as a car – while trying to lead lives of discipleship?”
She goes on to write about some of her and her husband’s thoughts and musings about this particular purchase. She weighs the values of simplicity, thrift, and respecting the earth, with the values of getting to places in a timely manner, convenience, having more ability to visit out of state friends and family, and having more time and energy for other things God would call them to do.
After weighing all these things, she notes that they made the purchase. She ends by saying “Perhaps one day we’ll go back to car-free living. In the meantime, we’ll try to figure out what it looks like to be disciples of Christ behind the wheel.”
I read the article with interest for a couple reasons. One was that, after nine and a half years of marriage as a one car couple, Abbie and I had just ended a few weeks of deliberation, deciding to buy a second car, which we just got yesterday. That’s one less parking spot available on Brownway Avenue on Sunday mornings. More broadly, the article did something extremely valuable that doesn’t seem to happen too often. It made a situation that could be viewed merely as a personal financial decision into a matter of communal significance. She recognized that their decision affected not only themselves and their bank account, but also their church community, their family, the planet, their relationship with God. She connected a basic monetary decision – to buy or not to buy – into a question of faith and spiritual discernment. And then she put it out there for others to consider the wisdom of their decision of how this speaks to similar decisions that we face.
Things that look like the most ordinary aspects of life – waiting at a bus stop, being able to get in a car and drive across town on short notice, visiting family, giving a lift to a friend who is trying to get by without an extra vehicle, turn out to be more than just mundane. They connect to something bigger.
In recession America, economics – personal and national – have been elevated to a top concern. I think it’s probably fair to say that most of us are more conscious of money realities because of this time. We feel a little less secure, less certain of where things are headed, more cautious about spending and investing, more aware of how our personal well-being is tied up in this bigger macro web of economic activity over which we seem to have so little personal control.
Scripture does not shy away from economic concerns. When one is looking for it, it comes up with surprising frequency. Today’s readings are no exception.
Given what he has to say about things, the prophet Habakkuk might as well be looking out over present economic abuses, broadcasting his words to whoever will tune into his radio show, or log on to his website, www.propheticrant.org. (By the way, I did check to see if that website existed and as far as I can tell, it is not yet spoke for, so if anyone wants to claim it, now might be the time). Habakkuk looks around and cries out to God, who doesn’t seem to be paying too close attention to the injustices that are going on. “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?” the prophet declares. “Or cry to you, ‘Violence!’ ‘Upheaval!’ and you will not save. Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails.” A little later he gets more specific as to the economic troubles he sees. “Alas for you who heap up what is not your own! How long will you load yourselves with goods taken in pledge?”…Alas for you who get evil gain for your houses, setting your nest on high to be safe from the reach of harm. You have devised shame for your house by cutting off many peoples; you have forfeited your life. The very stones will cry out from the wall, and the plaster will respond from the woodwork.”
The prophet wants some answers from God, wants some divine justice, and also wants to have a place to point the blame for the current upheaval. He saves his harshest words for those whose wealth is built on the losses of others. Even if God appears not to be paying attention presently, the prophet’s confidence in ultimate justice is unshaken. The stones in the walls and the plaster in these lavish homes are bearing witness to what is happening and will cry out until justice is served.
The gospel passage also has a strong economic flavor. The main character, aside from Jesus, is one of those very people whose wealth has been built on the losses of others – Zacchaeus, who was not only a tax collector, but a chief tax collector – in the Roman bureaucracy, overseeing and benefiting from the occupation of his own people.
Just coming off of a healing that caused the crowds to praise God and rejoice, Jesus is riding a wave of popular sentiment through the city of Jericho. With all the crowd on his side, Jesus is presented with an opportunity that would have raised his approval rating through the roof – from good to great. Up ahead is Zacchaeus, the despised chief tax collector, in a rather vulnerable position up in a tree looking for Jesus’ passage through the city. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, Zacchaeus. A perfect target for a perfectly justified prophetic rant on Jesus’ part. It could even have had some kind of memorable prophetic poetic imagery. “Alas, for you Zacchaeus. Though you sit high perched in the sycamore tree, you shall be brought low to the depths of the earth. For you have uprooted your people so that they can no longer flourish. They shall grow into mighty oaks and you shall wither like a weed” – or something like that.
Jesus would lay the prophetic smack down, the crowd would go wild with approval, and Zacchaeus would be put in his place. Justice served.
Jesus does single out Zacchaeus, but goes an entirely different direction. He invites himself over to Zak’s house for the day. Luke notes that “All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’” The approval ratings take a sudden nose dive south.
With Jesus in the house, his guest of honor for the day, Zacchaeus makes a startling declaration. He makes a major financial decision right in front of everyone. The first, and only, words that we hear from him, have to do with a complete revolution in his personal budget priorities. As the text says, “Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’”
Jesus responded by saying, “That’s great Zacchaeus, but I’m not really concerned about economics. What you do with your money is really your own business.” Wait a minute, how does your Bible translate that?
Scratch that. Let’s try this: “Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’” Did Jesus say Salvation? Like salvation-salvation? Like…..salvation?
Yes – Today, salvation has come to this house. Unfortunately for Jesus, he said these words before the theology books were written that better clarified how salvation happens. Salvation, we know, is only an act of God, not an act of a human. There’s nothing we can do to gain salvation. We can do all the good works we want, but it doesn’t earn us salvation. Plus, salvation can’t really be experienced today. It’s a future thing.
Had Jesus known that, he may not have been so quick to pronounce salvation to Zacchaeus after Zacchaeus’ decision to allow his wealth to be an agent of reconciliation, of making right. As if this decision has anything to do with salvation. And Jesus certainly wouldn’t have said that salvation is available today for Zacchaeus.
But he did, and this confirms two of those peculiar, yet absolutely core teachings of Jesus, which he repeated over and over again throughout his ministry. The first is that salvation, life in the Kingdom of God, as he called it, does indeed happen today, in the present moment. The Kingdom of God is near, is present, is today, Jesus taught. The present moment, the fullness of the now, is the time we have been given in which to experience the fullness of life. The second teaching is that we participate in our salvation, in the making whole process that God is working through us. It is always at God’s invitation, initiative, but salvation is a call and response event. We are involved, we must say Yes, and we must do Yes in order for salvation to come about.
Salvation, like economics, involves the whole web of life. When Zacchaeus makes the decision to make right the economic wrongs that he has done, he begins to participate in God’s bigger salvation project of healing the world. He himself, becomes an agent of salvation, which involves the whole of life. Today, salvation has come to this house.
For we who choose to follow Jesus, who rejoice in participating in the Kingdom of God today, there is the acknowledgement that no part of our lives, including our economic lives, are exempt from God’s salvation project.
I want to end by offering a few brief notes and examples of ways that might push us a little further in that direction. And these are just some scattered anecdotes, intended to stir the imagination toward creative reconciling work. There are six:
First, a quote: I believe it is Tony Campolo who says something like: ““If you’re a Christian you’re allowed to make lots of money, you’re just not allowed to keep it all.” – a good word to us First World Christians
2)There’s a group in Goshen, Indiana, which includes people from churches in our Central District Conference, that gives themselves a self-imposed gas tax. For every mile that they put on their vehicles, they contribute to a common fund. They then give this money away to causes that promote sustainable living.
3) The same Mennonite Weekly Review edition in which Celeste’s article appeared also carries an article about free financial counseling from Mennonite Mutual Aid, which is soon to be called Everence. As far as I understand it, this is available for members of Mennonite churches, up to six consultations per year. See the edition for more information.
4) If money is tight, consider a bartering system with friends or congregational members. Bartering is a way of recognizing that we all have resources of value, including our time, and aren’t limited to money exchanges.
5) Ron Sider suggests that people attempt a graduated tithe. This would be especially for people who are in the position of getting annual raises. As one’s income goes up, so can the percentage of one’s income that one gives away. If you start at 10%, after a number of years you can work your way up to 15 or 20 or more percentage of your income that you give away. Or, you start from wherever you are, even if it’s zero, and slowly work your way up from there.
6) Our congregation has a wonderful fund that is one of our best kept secrets. It is called the Voluntary Service Fund and it currently has over $4000 in it. It is intended to be available for people who wish to take time off from their normal routine and give time to service. So, for example, if you take two months off from work to give to service, meaning you aren’t earning any money during that time, but still need to make a mortgage payment, or rent, or utilities, you can access this fund to help you make that payment in order to free you up for service. You can also contribute to this Fund at any time.
These are just some suggestive examples of ways our economic practices might reflect the saving, healing, reconciling Presence of Christ.
Once Jesus singles you out, invites himself over, and sits down in your house, what else can you do but make some kind of declaration that from here on out, everything changes. Life looks different with Jesus around and things will never be the same. Our decisions flow out of the joy of being in Jesus’ presence, a joy that overflows from our lives affecting the whole web of life.