come to me, all ye who labor for a living (part 3)

Continuing the essay on work...

Jesus' teaching and practice of working (and giving) without asking anything in return has significant implications. For instance, it makes our work and the things we produce more available to the needy. If we are not working for repayment, then our services are not limited to those who can afford our fees. Then need, rather than ability to pay, becomes the decisive factor and the poor and vulnerable are favored rather than the rich. We begin to respond to the needy as God does.

This is further emphasized when we recall that Jesus recommended the same free giving of our possessions as well. Jesus' ideal was stated clearly to the rich young man: "If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me." (Mt 19.21) And in other places, the same radical giving is preached more broadly to his followers:

"Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys." (Lk 12.32-33)
So, in addition to making our services equally available (or even more available to the needy), Jesus' free giving also makes resources available to all. Instead of savings and investments and property lines that keep resources in the hands of the wealthy and powerful, Jesus' free giving puts resources into the hands of the poor.

This has a leveling effect, reducing the painful separation between the rich and poor, making both resources and services available to the most needy. This is loving and just. But, as was seen in Jesus' life, this effect is not accomplished by somehow making everyone rich. Instead, we see the expected result of such generous giving: Jesus and his disciples become poor with the poor. As he warned a prospective follower, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head." (Mt 8.20) In this we see Jesus responding to the needs of the most vulnerable, and in doing so becoming equally vulnerable himself.

The result of this is a mutual giving and receiving of gifts. Jesus preached and practiced a radical giving of resources and work freely to those in need, which resulted in his own neediness. Yet Jesus embraced this neediness, trusting God. And happily accepted the gifts of those who choose to follow his example and give freely to him and his disciples. There are many stories of him eating at the tables of others and staying at their houses, and when he sent out his disciples he specifically instructed them to accept gifts (for their needs) in the same way. Needs were met by free giving and receiving, not demanded by deals or contracts or legal rights but motivated by mutual love.

If we follow Jesus in this, we find ourselves in a revolutionary situation, a true "gift economy." All the work we do and everything we create is done in love as a gift for someone. And everything we receive comes as a gift of love from someone. It is not just an exchange of goods. Every "economic" interaction is now an act of love, with immense spiritual value.

Through Jesus' radical giving, work and resources become a way to draw people together rather than a source of contention. Those who follow him are drawn together in love and mutual vulnerability, in childlike dependence that looks to God in faith and is content to give all and remain poor. Poor, but richly provided for by the Father who loves us.

When I have described this to Christians, many have said, "That's how we will live in heaven, but down here in this fallen world...." I believe they are right about heaven. This is quite clearly the way of the kingdom of God. But Jesus offered the life of the kingdom of God to us now, if we will only believe and follow him. It may seem impossible, but with God nothing is impossible, and the life of Jesus and his disciples (and the lives of many of his followers throughout history) show us that God can make it a reality for us now.

In Psalm 95, recalling the Exodus, we hear about the people of Israel when God was trying to deliver them from slavery into freedom, and they did not trust the promises of God to provide for them. God speaks through the psalmist:
Harden not your hearts, as at Meribah,
as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
when your fathers tested me,
they tried me, though they had seen my work.

For forty years I was wearied of that generation
and said, "Their hearts are astray,
these people do not know my ways."
Therefore I swore in my anger
that they should not enter my rest.
And they wandered for the rest of their lives, trudging through the desert. Now, in our own desert (of "this fallen world"), we hear Jesus' words:
"Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." (Mt 11.28-30)
This invitation is offered to each of us.

So which way will we choose?

(The full essay is available for download as a RTF file here.)