What is a young family to do with a desire to follow Jesus more radically? This series of email exchanges I had with Paul Munn over a year ago (starting in April of 2009) attempts to explore some of that. To get caught up with the series, read question #1 and response #1, question #2/response #2 (which are one post), question #3 and response #3, and question #4.
Date: Fri, 8 May 2009 06:31:44 -0700
Subject: Re: work, gift, prayer
I liked hearing about your good conversations (and about your bathroom computer time!).
Years ago I stopped trying to connect Jesus’ revolutionary “gift economy” with any moral demand or “should.” When Heather and I were getting serious, her parents (missionaries in France) called and quizzed me on some of the things Heather had shared with them about me. One of their main objections was that I “thought it was wrong to work for money” (their interpretation) and, when they set up worst case scenarios, I wouldn’t break down and say I would go out and get a job for pay (to cover medical costs, buy food, etc). I kept insisting it wasn’t fair or honest to set up a scenario in which God didn’t offer some way of providing through gifts. Her father eventually said to us that if we did get married he would accept and embrace me as a son, but he didn’t think Heather should marry me (mostly for these economic reasons).
But in conversations with them (and with others since then), I always insisted that Jesus wasn’t laying some moral burden on us by preaching and living “gift economy.” He was demonstrating life in the kingdom of God. And inviting everyone else into it, everyone who would follow him. Like with the rich young man, first Jesus just points to the commandments, but when the young man presses him, he says “if you would be perfect, sell all, give to the poor, and follow me.” The man went away sad, and Jesus was sad too, but not condemning. Just sad that the man didn’t take up Jesus’ invitation to follow him into the incredible, revolutionary life of the kingdom.
It’s funny. Several times when I have described giving and receiving everything (including our work and time) as gifts, people say “yes, that’s how we will live in heaven… but down here, in this fallen world, it’s not possible.” I just take that as confirmation that they recognize that I’m describing life in the kingdom of God. And I object (sometimes a bit angrily) that they should not try to convince themselves (or me) that it is not possible, when Jesus demonstrated that it is possible (both for him and the twelve who were dependent on him) and said to all of us, “Follow me.” No one is excluded, no matter what their circumstances. Everyone is invited to live this incredible life now.
But in recent years I’ve shifted more to simply living the reality of it (and learning more and more through experience as we go) and letting that reality be the demonstration of the truth of it. When it’s real, when it’s right there in front of people, they can’t say it’s not possible.
I certainly think some jobs would be more like a gift than others. Say, if you would do that work whether or not you got paid. But I’ve never seen a job that has all the same dynamics as volunteering (”gift”). It sets up a completely different relationship between people; no more boss-employee, or employee-customer; no more demands “you have to do it because I’m paying you”; no more divided motivations, “I want to just focus on the work single-mindedly, but will this pay? Can I afford to spend so much time on this for what I’m getting out of it? Etc. When everything is a gift, really a free gift, there is no basis for demand except the demand of love. It can be perfectly single-minded. That’s how our work was supposed to be, that’s what we were created for; Jesus restores that with his invitation into the kingdom. And God makes it possible and real for those who have faith in Jesus’ invitation–even in this “fallen world.”
Sorry, it seems I’ve gone on and on. But thanks for the question. It’s stirring some thoughts and passions that I haven’t shared with anyone (except Heather) for quite a while.
Have a safe trip home!
Jesus said something like, “Where two or more are gathered in my name, I am in there midst”. Of course this is part of the equation. A gift economy is not an economy of one. In short it takes two at least. The interpretation of what Jesus said is… where two or more are gathered in my understanding. I am in their number endorsing the way they are living. That is a reasonable way of explaining what is said.
A complex society based on gift culture is a threat to any money based society, barter society, or market society.
A complex society based on a gift culture has as a base the understanding of abundance rather than scarcity. All other societies are based on the extortion of forced insurance because of anticipated scarcity. A typical illustration of this is the story of Joseph and the pharaoh’s dreams, rise to power and etc. Joseph used pharaoh’s dreams in a clever way to plant a post hypnotic suggestion of fear of the future in pharaoh’s mind. This formula has been used by con men from the beginning of spoken language to gain power. Joseph used this tactic to go from jail to second in command. The story has the happy ending of his family rejoining him in his exalted positon and instills the idea that the end justifies the means. There is a lot of teaching going on here and is meant to be understood by those that are wise enough to understand it, either for gain or for defense.
A true gift economy does not recognize the ownership of anything. Everything is ultimately owned by God and gifted to who ever is using it. There is no shortage, there is no need to hoard things that a person is not using. If that simple idea were acknowledged many of the problems of the human populations of the Earth would be solved.
Hidden in the text of the bible are the methods of entering into the way God intended humans to live an advanced complex society of “gift culture” (to use terms somewhat understandable in these times).
To explain this all in terms more applicable in this modern time….in order to come into rapport with the entire creation of the creator, who Jesus claims is beyond human comprehension, humanity needs to let go and let God. The only real freedom humanity has is the freedom to say no. Jesus and his cousin John the Baptist had it right. Repent. Say no to the worlds way and yes to God’s way. Then go find out by living it what that way is.
The idea of recruiting people into the Kingdom of God is to grow the community of people living in the “way” so that the community can prosper and subsist. The true difficulty is that the leadership has been blind, and so as Jesus foretold, “the blind leading the blind they all fall in the ditch”. There is much work to do and many who wish to do it. The understanding of Jesus is the way, it is true, and it is the life.
Jim, I think you’ve got it right in your attraction to “gift culture.” It’s a beaufitul way to live and it rightly recognizes abundance when scarcity is usually the norm. But if you devote yourself to the hard work of getting enough people to fill this “culture”, I think you may be waiting an awfully long time. Jesus announced his kingdom using the present tense, “at hand.” The time to start living his economy is now, even though “those who find it are few” (Matt. 7:14). That shouldn’t deter us, as followers of Jesus, because our real adundance has always come from our Father. Many times in spite of the masses.