In Double Fudge by Judy Blume, Peter Hatcher’s little brother, five-year-old Fudge, becomes fascinated with money. Every night, Fudge counts up his money; a process he calls “mising.” He prints his own currency, which he calls “Fudgebucks.” He continually embarrasses his family by asking grown-ups about their financial situations. At the dinner table, he tries to convince his dad to pay him for passing the salt. One night, Peter, recalls:
We could hear Fudge as he started to sing, “Oh, money, money, money . . . I love money, money, money, money.” As soon as he stopped, Uncle Feather, his myna bird, started, “Ooooo, money, money, money.” Turtle, my dog, lifted his head and howled. He thinks he can sing. Dad called, “Fudge . . . cover Uncle Feather’s cage and get to sleep.”
“Uncle Feather’s mising his money,” Fudge called back. “He’s not ready to go to sleep.”
“How did this happen to us?” Mom asked. “We’ve always worked hard. We spend carefully. And we never talk about money in front of the children.”
“Maybe that’s the problem,” I told them.
Judy Blume certainly captures the situation well. We Americans are allergic to talking about money and possessions. And yet our nation’s unspoken, unexamined and unhealthy relationship with material wealth dominates our lives. Jesus would not have made a good American. He waded right in to the deep social, ethical, and spiritual issues we are avoiding.
Jesus’ call for disciples to “hate” “parents, spouse and child, siblings, kin, indeed life itself” might be partly attention-grabbing hyperbole. Still, I think he was very serious. To me, the last line of the passage is the key to the whole thing: “None of you can become my disciples if you do not give up all your possessions.” I think what Jesus meant is that the whole concept of possession is problematic. What we should “hate” is the presumption of ownership, the quality of grasping and controlling, that shapes conventional understandings of kinship, property, and life itself. Jesus had a radically different vision of how things should be. In his view, relationships and land, all that sustains life, are gifts to be freely received and equitably shared.
Author and activist Barbara Ehrenreich died this past week. In her pivotal book Nickel and Dimed, she went “undercover,” working minimum wage jobs in order to write about the experience. Over two years of doing this in different industries and cities, she found it literally impossible to make ends meet. Her work conclusively contradicts the great American “religion” of optimism that masks the brutality of our economy, the pious lie that says if you work hard you can get ahead. She concludes with these words:
When someone works for less pay than she can live on . . . she has made a great sacrifice for you. . . . The “working poor” . . . are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. . . . To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone. (Nickel and Dimed, p. 221)
I remember how reading this book took my breath away. Yes, I worked for minimum wage at McDonalds as a teen, but I wasn’t trying to live on that income. It was extra spending money and some to save for college tuition. Ehrenreich’s intimate portrait of the impossible situation so many face in our society made me sad, angry and hyper-aware of my privilege. And this book also made it completely clear to me: capitalism is incompatible with Christianity. We cannot be Jesus’ disciples and also give our allegiance to an economic system that exploits people and destroys the earth. “None of you can become my disciples if you do not give up all your possessions.” The stories Jesus tells about building a tower and going into battle make the point—those who are beginning a project must consider the full cost of its completion. And the cost of following Jesus is everything. Discipleship changes it all. It reimagines our entire world. It means becoming like the leaves, letting go of all grasping, owning and controlling.
For several years, as part of our reparations work, we’ve been learning about and making contributions to Makoce Ikikcupi, or Dakota Land Recovery Project. This group of Dakota people has used donations from settlers to purchase land near Granite Falls, MN. The project, they explain on their website, “seeks to bring some of our relatives home, re-establish our spiritual and physical relationship with our homeland, and ensure the ongoing existence of our People.” This week, we received a request from Makoce Ikikcupi to advocate for the return of a parcel of land in Ramsey County to the Dakota people (the former site of Boys Totem Town). More information about how to do that was in the weekly email. I believe the process of returning land to the stewardship of indigenous peoples benefits all of us. It is the beginning of making the profound shift we need to make, of learning again to relate to the land, as home, as life, as a shared gift to be respected, rather than as a possession to be owned, controlled, and abused.
The large crowds following Jesus were amazed by what he was doing—healing the sick, feeding the poor and hungry, extending a loving welcome to the excluded. However, Jesus knew that most of them did not yet understand his vision. He wasn’t a one person show. He was setting in motion a movement to change everything. He was looking for disciples, for co-workers who would answer the call to commit themselves to this work whole-heartedly, single-mindedly. He wanted prospective followers to understand upfront the cost of making that choice. There would be conflict with loved ones. They would have to choose between their allegiance to their families and their loyalty to Jesus. Discipleship would mean giving up their possessions to be shared in community. And it would ultimately involve carrying the cross—being at odds with the authorities; facing danger and perhaps death.
I came across a really interesting thought this week in a commentary from the contributors at the SALT project. They say: The good news of the Gospel may be for everyone—but discipleship isn’t.” They acknowledge that this idea that
Discipleship isn’t for everyone—may at first be counterintuitive for many Christians today. Isn’t the whole point of Christianity that anyone can become a disciple, and that the goal is to make as many as possible? Well, if Jesus thought so, he had a strange way of showing it. He encountered thousands of people during his ministry—but only called something like fourteen to be disciples. Nor did he send out the twelve disciples, and later the seventy “laborers,” to recruit and expand their ranks; rather, he expressly sent them out to heal and proclaim that “the kingdom of God has come near.” (Luke 9:6; 10:9). Likewise, Jesus moved through the countryside feeding and healing and teaching the crowds, but not calling on them to follow him.
There are folks in every generation who are true disciples—who are willing and able to respond to Jesus’ vision with everything they have and everything they are. Most of us; though are more like “friends of the disciples” as the preacher Barbara Brown Taylor once put it. We want to be with Jesus and the community he creates. We are drawn Jesus’ values, to his ministry of healing, feeding and welcoming. We honor the disciples and tell their stories. We study their lives. We imitate them in ways that are small and modest. And we continue to try to move our lives toward that compelling vision of a world in which there are no possessions, only shared gifts. And God’s acceptance of us does not depend on our success. As we make this journey of faith, seeking to become more like disciples, God loves us and welcomes us just as we are. Amen.