I should stop for a moment to say that the $1,800 or $2,400 or whatever it happens to be that the Federal government seems intent on giving to my family could prove very useful around our home. I am currently a graduate student with a family and, as you might be able to imagine, it would be nice to budget in a little more meat and a little less starch into our diet, or perhaps get an inexpensive used car so that one person’s absence doesn’t bind the rest of the family at home, but other considerations have convinced us to use our share in a way that might seem both impractical and, to some, unpatriotic. Allow me to explain.
Think back to the weeks following September 11, 2001. Do you recall how we were challenged to defeat terror? In case you’ve forgotten, I’ll give you a hint. It didn’t involve humility or sacrifice; instead, we were to fight by continuing to buy and fly. Never mind that encouraging Americans to be good consumers is a bit like encouraging bricks to be hard; I have a feeling we would have gotten back on our spending feet with or without an executive pronouncement. Anyway, at least on a superficial level, the tactic seemed to have averted one potential disaster, so it’s time once again to love our country by loving ourselves.
But isn’t the church supposed to be different? Christ warns us that we cannot serve both God and material things, yet how many of us find ourselves looking a lot more like earnest inhabitants of what Augustine called the “city of man” than like followers of Christ. Some scholars speculate that the writer of Ecclesiastes may have been Solomon, partly on the basis the claim that “I denied myself nothing that my eyes desired.” While such extravagance may have been reserved for the powerful in ancient Israel , very average Americans can daily feed their lusts in astonishing ways – ways that should, but usually don’t, make us blush.
Now that we are once again hearing that being a good American seems to involve shopping or taking a vacation or eating out, Christians have an opportunity to stand in a meaningful way against the spirit of the age. Don’t buy the culture’s arguments about so-called needs and don’t buy stuff with your money this time. Instead, let’s find actual needs and meet those instead. I can’t say where you might find them; as for my family, we will likely direct ours to people for whom poverty is a much harsher reality than we will ever know, even with the specter of a recession haunting our near future.
I firmly believe that God uses physical realities to communicate spiritual truths to us, so that when, for example, the Apostle Paul wrote in II Corinthians of one church’s wealth meeting another’s need, it was a reminder of what a dramatic repudiation of this world’s commercial paradigm a gospel of grace represents. Earlier in the Scriptures, God even addresses using the language of commerce to emphasize just how seismic this shift is:
Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.
We all know that the best store was the one where we could afford nothing but walked out with more than we could ever carry. Perhaps that’s a sign that we could hand off one of our bags to someone else. Isn’t that kind of economy much more stimulating anyway?