I am a descendant of pack rats. This is a difficult, borderline unethical statement to make because, well for starters, “rats” aren’t exactly viewed as positive creatures to be likened to (Which is ridiculous. In any post-apocalyptic video game, you know what you pick up on a skewer to raise HP in a world stripped of traditional nutrients? Rat meat. They are the sustenance of the future, and we need to recognize and appreciate that.) so referring to my family as such would be frowned upon.
The next reason is the one that baffles me the most. In a world of shows like Hoarders and Confessions: Animal Hoarding and even Extreme Couponing, we (speaking of Americans, specifically white, middle class, etc.) hold titles like “pack rat” at arms length in order to pretend we’re not steeped in a culture of excess. We can have a house filled with furniture, multiple TVs, hundreds of books, films, and music, but as long as we don’t have a specific thing that we hoard, we’re in the clear. Now we can possess entire archives of information and media, but since the hard drives they’re on are the size of our fists or smaller, we can feel like we aren’t over-saturated. If we don’t obsess over clipping coupons to an extreme degree, then we can rest assured that we are consuming correctly, normally.
So being somewhat of a pack rat obviously has its shortcomings, but those would be more alarming if I weren’t already ingrained in an existence defined by possession and consumerism. What I mean when I say that I am a descendant of pack rats is that my mother and her mother were always seeing how things could be potentially useful or generally needed. Old documents, receipts, mostly paperwork whose keeping I assumed was driven by a fear of some life-audit. I hold onto things because I find them interesting and/or full of creative potential. Does that justify keeping them? Nah, especially not in large volumes. That’s why I finally bit the bullet a couple years ago and donated all the chapter books that I’d demanded to keep from my childhood. I’m still working on departing with all the old Star Wars toys that populate the shelves of my bedroom at home.
The other day, my friend was telling me about an encounter that he had recently with a homeless person asking him for money. He didn’t specify how much he was asked for, how much he gave, but that wasn’t the main thrust of the story. The main thrust of the story is that another woman, after my friend gave his money away, tore into him about what a bad decision he’d made. My friend began to drive home, but his anger at the latter woman built. She din’t know how that person was going to spend that money. She didn’t know anything about the situation. So he turned around, mostly to find the homeless person in the Wal Mart they’d been at to prove that they were spending the money the way they said they would. Unfortunately, he couldn’t find them, and after about an hour, the endeavor as a whole had come to an end.
So my friend’s actions may seem a bit neurotic, but they do make sense, right? When asked about whether or not they give people money, people will often respond that they’re more likely to give if they feel more assured that the person will spend the money how they say they will, or otherwise wisely. There was a YouTube video that went viral recently that followed a homeless person around after they’d been given money to see how they spent it. I never watched the video, partially for reasons I’ll delve into in a minute, and partially because I never found the time. Another similar video saw people giving homeless people a sum of money or food, only to send in one of the filmmakers to pretend to be another homeless person and ask the original for some of the food or money that their group had just given them in order to make a point about generosity.
Generosity and giving things away is something we really like the idea of, but we are often terrified by the actual practice. When Jesus tells the rich young ruler to give away everything he has, we do our best to take it in every way except literally. In our world, having less means being less. Unfortunately we can’t just brush the rich young ruler off as an isolated incident in Jesus’s individual instruction.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives instruction for how to handle the temptation of revenge. He tells us to give extra to those who sue us, to perform more for those who make demands of us. Give to the one who asks you and don’t turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
Now, I think there’s something profound to say about the context of these instructions as they pertain to handling revenge and enemies, etc. but I’d like to suggest two things.
First, what if God treated us like we treat those to whom we give money, but whose motives we question? I think here Jesus is giving us a model of giving mercifully and graciously, even as an act of forgiveness. What if God kept tabs on us when we asked for forgiveness? “I want to keep an eye on them and make sure they’re using my grace well, the way they said they would.” Our God is a God who doles out forgiveness sacrificially, without a trace of the self-preservation that often taints our own.
Secondly, this instruction comes in the midst of Jesus’s expounding on the already existing Jewish laws. He goes through and redefines things like murder to include anger, adultery to include lust, and so on. However, what I think he may be touching on here is something less known because, well, it’s in Deuteronomy.
The beginning of Deuteronomy addresses the Year of Cancelling Debts for Israel. Here, God advises that there’s no reason for anyone to be poor among Israel and that every seven years, the nation has a duty to give generously to those who are impoverished. But purpose of this passage isn’t simply to say “hey, every seven years, let’s get everyone on the level.”
If this command were lived out to its fullest by God’s people, this is a command that strives to eliminate systemic poverty in Israel.
And so I wonder if this is what Jesus is touching on when he gives this command in his sermon. If so, he’s revitalizing a law that Israel has long forgotten and neglected, as well as expanding it in the way he has the others, now to include enemies and outsiders. If this is what’s happening, then not only is this a great commandment to give of ourselves sacrificially, but doing so is a restorative action.
It restores us to one another. Nothing is more disarming than grace. Someone once redefined grace to me not as the often-cited example of a cop pulling you over for doing 20 mph over and then deciding not to give you a ticket. That’s mercy. Grace makes less sense. Grace is when you get pulled over for doing 30 mph over, you’re wanted for murder and theft, and the cop says “you’re free to go, and here’s everything I have, as well.” This model of giving sacrificially doesn’t make any rational sense. And maybe that’s why I’m so comfortable with it. Sometimes, when we talk about God, we get so wrapped up in trying to find the reason behind it all that we forget there are some things about God that are fundamentally unreasonable, grace being one of the most prominent.
And it restores us to God, to God’s will for His people in the world. If grace is disarming and restorative, why would we not bring that into the world around us? If that action brings us and others closer into God, into the narrative of redemption and restoration that’s being weaved, why wouldn’t we want to live into that? Because it doesn’t appear reasonable? That is what appears unreasonable.
This is something I’ve been challenged by recently. It’s hard to give things away. It’s hard to have less for the sake of having less, but I believe it’s something we’re called to. So I want to make a suggestion that I made to one of my classes here:
What if we made it a goal to end each day lighter than we began it? To have less at the end of each day than we had at the beginning in order to bless others. A.W. Tozer in his book, The Pursuit of God, talks about possessions as they relate to rest. He says something along the lines that rest comes when we can cast off the pretenses of what we think we want to be, what the world wants us to be. And what we’re being told by our world that what we want is to possess. That’s how we gain status, that’s how we know we exist.
I want to go to bed lighter, but I’m not sure I know how yet. I’m not sure I’m brave enough, yet. But I do know that if I find a good, consistent way to do so, that I will be living more profoundly into God’s will for me and the world around me.
When I approach Jesus and he tells me to give away everything I own, I don’t want to turn away defeated. I want to walk lighter alongside him.