“How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.”Luke 18:18-27
In a world of great poverty, in a country dramatically divided between those who have so much and those who have very little, Jesus’ words come as a sobering reminder to those of us who are comparatively well-off, that our money and possessions can prevent us from being part of God’s kingdom. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God,” says Jesus, and he not only had the “filthy rich” in mind. No wonder that those who heard these words said “Then who can be saved?” Is it only those who turn their backs on the world, take a vow of poverty and join a monastery? Can we continue to live in a complex world with all its inevitable compromises, and still be saved?
Not far from Stockbridge in western Massachusetts, where Isobel and I have spent some time, is the old Shaker village of Hancock. The Shakers were a small Christian sect founded in England in the 18th century that believed Jesus was going to return within their own life time. So they sold up everything, got rid of worldly possessions, formed communities of mutual support, and waited for Jesus. Persecution forced many of them to seek refuge in the United States where they became well-known for their handcraft, the way in which they danced during worship, and the songs they sang as they did so It was one of these that prompted this meditation. I woke up last Friday with the words “it’s a gift to be simple” running through my brain! They come from what is probably the best known Shaker song:
‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free ‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
There is something attractive about the idea of living simply unless, of course, you happen to be poor and have no option but to live simply. But living simply is an enormous challenge for all of us who live in our modern day complex world shaped by market forces and new technologies. The moment you get a bank account, smart-phone or computer, whatever innocence you might have previously imagined you had, flies out of the widow along with your e-mails, Facebook entries, and much of your cash.
I asked Isobel what she thought “living simply” meant. In response she wrote a long poem, far too long to repeat here (but see below). Each stanza begins with a question seeking further clarification: does living simply mean living uncomplicated lives, or uncluttered, or living in a less complex world. or being simple or single-minded? And, she ends: “Can we really live simply without a drastic life-style change…without giving away everything” and joining a monastery? And we might add, can it be done without the restructuring of the South African and global economies that are built on inequality and kept going by us acquiring more and more stuff that we don’t really need? And yet, can we now live without upgrading our cell phones and computers, and the money and bank accounts we need to service them? The examples are endless. We seemed to be trapped in complexity. Who then can be saved?
In his book The Freedom of Simplicity Richard Foster provides an important perspective. “Christian simplicity,” he says “lives in harmony with the ordered complexity of life. It repudiates easy, dogmatic answers to tough, intricate problems. In fact, it is this grace that frees us sufficiently to appreciate and respond to the complex issues of contemporary society.” In other words, living more simply does not mean escaping the complexities of life but learning to cast off what is not important in responding to them. This is the work of grace enabling us to seek first God’s kingdom as we struggle to live responsibly amid the complexities of modern life and respond, for example, to the environmental crisis facing us.
The gift of simplicity is not cheap grace, but the grace of discipleship. Brother Roger, the founder of Taizé, provides a clue to what this means in the Rule he wrote for his community: “Your availability implies continual simplification of your existence, not by constraint, but by faith.” Continual simplification, not because we are commanded to simplify, but to make us more available for others. To live more simply then means following Jesus in becoming and being more available for others irrespective of how complex our lives may be. It is not just a matter of shedding stuff we don’t need, it is about what we do with what we have, and how we relate to others, especially those in need.
Yet it never fails to amaze me how it is often those who are poor who are the most generous. Jesus reminds us of this in his story of the widow’s mite. Most of those who put money in the Temple treasury box, Jesus says, “contributed out of their abundance,” but the widow, “out of her poverty has put in everything she had.” (Mark 12:41-44) Which brings to mind what Jesus also said: “To whom much is given, much will be required.” (Lk. 12:48) This does not only refer to money, but to all other gifts, skills and talents, time and resources, education and friendship, solidarity in the struggle for justice, caring and compassionate living. And the paradox is not only that the more we share the more we receive, but the more we become free. That old Shaker songwriter knew this to be true. For the gift to be simple was at the same time the gift to be free,. But not just free in ourselves, or free from the cares of the world, but free to be responsible, free to be for others, in a complex world..
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 8 September 2016