I do not know what to make of this week’s Gospel. I do know that we cannot afford to continue ignoring it. On one level, it is surprisingly straightforward. Following Christ will cost you everything: your family, your possessions, and your life. This is not a pleasant message. Most interpretations attempt to make it a pleasant message. That is a mistake, and tends to make a mockery of the plain meaning of the text.
On the one hand, the Gospel is the good news, and so we are tempted to search each passage for something comforting and uplifting. We want a take home message that might challenge us; but for the most part does not threaten to radically alter our way of life. Today’s Gospel shatters that illusion. That illusion that is perhaps best summarized by Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ‘cheap grace.’
Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
This week, Jesus demands everything. And we fall short, as always. It’s tempting to let ourselves off the hook. Surely Jesus didn’t really mean we need to value Him more than our families, friends, possessions, and personal safety? Surely we can find a way to hold on to both Jesus and everything else?
I said that I did not know what to make of this Gospel, and I meant it. But I think it is worth spending some time wrestling with, instead of attempting to jump straight to a comfortable, or even an uncomfortable, answer. To help with that wrestling, a little more of Bonhoeffer’s thoughts on grace before we get to the poverty news for the week. Bonhoeffer contrasts cheap grace with costly grace:
Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner….Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.
What does costly grace look like in practice? Does it mean selling all that we have? Jesus says this in Mark 10:21 and Matthew 19:21. Historically, the disciples had few possessions, and what they had they held in common (Acts 2:44-45). I can not think of a good reason to think that Jesus does not mean exactly what he is saying when he says to leave behind our individual possessions, give our wealth to the poor, and follow him.
At a minimum, the passage suggests that our property is not actually ours, but instead we ought to dispose of it in a way that is pleasing to God. Bonhoeffer again:
Earthly goods are given to be used, not to be collected. In the wilderness God gave Israel the manna every day, and they had no need to worry about food and drink. Indeed, if they kept any of the manna over until the next day, it went bad. In the same way, the disciple must receive his portion from God every day. If he stores it up as a permanent possession, he spoils not only the gift, but himself as well, for he sets his heart on accumulated wealth, and makes it a barrier between himself and God. Where our treasure is, there is our trust, our security, our consolation and our God. Hoarding is idolatry.
I did not know this would be the Gospel this week when I posted this saying from St. Basil on facebook earlier this week, but it certainly helps me to see where St. Basil was coming from. Your property isn’t really yours. It’s God’s. And that changes everything.
And now the newspaper:
1. Being poor may be the cause of bad decisions, not the result of them:
But the impact on cognitive skills is especially noteworthy for how it should influence our understanding of poverty. Poor people—like all people—make some bad choices. There is some evidence that poor people make more of these bad choices than the average person. This evidence can easily lead to the blithe conclusion that bad choices, rather than economic conditions, are the cause of poverty. The new research shows that this is—at least to some extent—exactly backward. It’s poverty itself (perhaps mediated by the unusually severe forms of decision fatigue than can affect the poor) that undermines judgment and leads to poor decision-making.
2. Why study economics? This seems like a good reason:
It was because I hoped that something could be done about these and the other problems I had seen so vividly growing up in Gary, Ind. — poverty, episodic and persistent unemployment, unending discrimination against African-Americans — thatI decided to become an economist, veering away from my earlier intention to go into theoretical physics. I soon discovered I had joined a strange tribe. While there were a few scholars (including several of my teachers) who cared deeply about the issues that had led me to the field, most were unconcerned about inequality; the dominant school worshiped at the feet of (a misunderstood) Adam Smith, at the miracle of the efficiency of the market economy. I thought that if this was the best of all possible worlds, I wanted to construct and live in another world.
3. The battle over SNAP impacts real people:
Yet as lawmakers cast the fight in terms of spending, nonpartisan budget analysts and hunger relief advocates warn of a spike in “food insecurity” among Americans who, as Mr. Rigsby said recently, “look like we are fine,” but live on the edge of poverty, skipping meals and rationing food.
4. A pastor reflects on Labor Day and SNAP:
During Labor Day weekend we take time to reflect on what allows us to “put food on the table.” In my line of work, as a pastor, I encounter people regularly who have to make difficult choices that no one should have to make: do I buy food or do I pay my rent? Many of our churches, synagogues, schools and community centers try to lend a hand to families in need. In many cases, the aid is appreciated but insufficient to get the family to a position of self-sufficiency.
It is during this time when so many Americans struggle to find work and put meals on the table that lawmakers in Washington are cutting a vital lifeline — food assistance — that protects vulnerable families from falling into poverty. This is a moral scandal that betrays our nation’s best values and highest ideals.
5. A look at poverty in the U.S.
Even though we don’t have starvation, we do have an amount of poverty that leads to malnutrition, that leads to a series of diseases that we don’t tend to associate with First World countries, that leads to massively truncated life expectancy, and all but guarantees that from one generation to the next, poverty is going to be transmitted. And that sort of flies in the face of the idea of America as a place with endless upward mobility. But if you look at the data, there’s a group of Americans that falls outside of that idea of social mobility.
Footnote: All three Bonhoeffer quotations are from The Cost of Discipleship, which I highly recommend reading.