I grew up dusting and sweeping and vacuuming around my mother’s seemingly endless array of stuff, vowing to myself from a young age, When I grow up I will never accumulate so many things and I will never-ever-ever spend so much time cleaning. Regularly purging my life of undesirables, I didn’t learn until later how weird my college classmates thought I was for wearing the same cords and the same two shirts (on alternate days, of course) as I rode my bike the eight miles to school each day. It made total sense to me. Yep, from day one I was a minimalist at heart.
But that didn’t make me a Jesus-minimalist.
You see, my focus was myself – my desire for a simple life, my goal of not wasting so much time dealing with stuff, my need for order, my obsession with avoiding debt. Yes, Jesus warned against storing up for ourselves treasures on earth. He also told us not to worry about what we will eat or what we will wear, and instead to trust him with our needs. I understood all of that pretty well, living with a peaceful, relaxed, loose connection to possessions that made room for God to bring along the things that I truly needed.
What I didn’t grasp was the big why, the main reason not to allow our lives to become overloaded with possessions. It’s a pretty obvious, preschool-esque lesson, but in my zeal without knowledge it went right over my head. The way we avoid building up treasure on earth, Jesus said, is not just by purging our stuff, but through sharing it with the poor:
Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Luke 12:33-34, NIV)
Sure, I tithed and gave to missions and sure, I supported an overseas orphan or two and sure, I lived reasonably simply. But looking back, did I do all I could to share with the poor? I don’t think so. The way I had always misunderstood it, Matthew 6:33 was about getting our individual needs met. In my case that would mean this verse is about Jesus taking care of everything Sarah J. O’Connor needs:
But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
Although it’s true that Jesus took care of me as I did my best to put first things first, that’s not exactly what the verse is saying. In Greek the yous are plural, not singular. As you are no doubt aware, English uses the same form for singular and plural, so we lose the point in translation. In common conversation we have our ways of making up for the loss, however. Where I grew up in Southern California we invented all sorts of grammatically atrocious Valley-girl-ish work-arounds for the invisible plural you: Are you guys coming over to our house tonight? Or are we meeting at your guys’s place? I don’t know; will your guys’s parents be there? Totally.
So if you guys will pardon my painfully colloquial translation, Matthew 6:33 literally reads something along these lines:
But you guys seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you guys as well.
You guys. Oh. It’s not about Jesus taking care of me, myself, and I, but about Jesus taking care of us. As we hang together, seeking his will and his kingdom and his righteousness together, Jesus promises to take care of us. He will provide what we need, not just what I need. So when I get more than I can possibly ever reasonably use and more than I can possibly ever reasonably need, it’s my job to find out whom I can help. That’s the Christian way.
The only section in Jesus’s entire Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) that contains no singular forms of you is 6:25-34, the part about not freaking out over our needs. On every other topic Jesus switched back and forth between singular and plural, personalizing and individualizing what he said even though he was speaking to a crowd. Except (pardon my Valleyspeak) in 6:25-34:
Therefore, you guys, I tell you do not worry about your guys’s life, what you guys will eat or drink; or about your guys’s body, what you guys will wear…Your guys’s heavenly Father knows that you guys need food and clothing…Therefore, you guys, do not worry about tomorrow…
That means when I possess an abundance I might be part of the answer to someone else’s stress about tomorrow, about how they’ll pay their rent or buy their groceries or get to their job. Sure, we all need to trust God to provide for us, but sometimes we need help too. When I got this, when I understood the community focus of God’s provision, I worked on exchanging my run-of-the-mill minimalist heart for Jesus-minimalism. And that’s where I want to camp from here on out, by God’s grace.
I still appreciate the fact that I started out with a minimalist take on life, for even the modest form of simplicity we embraced gifted my family of six with a great deal of peace over the years. No, we didn’t strip our life to the bare minimum, eschewing modern comfort and everything else that makes life interesting and enjoyable; we lived well. But when my tendency toward minimalism-light simplicity put us slightly at odds with our boomer-consumer generation at times, allowing our children to reflect on just how much is enough, I considered that a plus rather than a negative.
My encounter with Jesus-minimalism, my brush with a countercultural way of viewing how God provides for his children, has changed me. I can’t go back to my old way of thinking, even if I wanted to. Some things don’t leave you unscathed.
Let’s see, who could use a coat this winter?