As I continue to seek my path to serve God, I am faced with this question: How do I balance the needs of the world with service to God? Can I serve two masters?
So far as I can tell by my reading of the Gospels, Jesus had no worldly occupation. Tradition suggests that he’d been trained as a carpenter by Joseph, his step-father. But the Gospels don’t say he traveled across the Holy Land building houses. It appears that he relied for sustenance on his followers and on friendly strangers.
I suspect that was easier in those days and in that culture. There was no health insurance, no car payment, and no mortgage. You had what you owned. There was little debt. Winters were mild. People were more likely to feed a traveling stranger on the road. (I remember my first mother-in-law, who was Jewish, frequently citing the maxim, “Feed a cold, feed a fever.” The Jews were and are all about feeding people.)
I met an old woman in Sri Lanka who earned about $15 each month, and gave half of it away to those in need. But her housing was free, her food was supplied, and free health insurance was provided to all residents by the government. (Yes, even some third world nations have national health care. Yet we’re told it’s not practical in the U.S.)
My culture taught me to believe that you grow up to get a good job, buy a house on credit, get some credit cards, and live the “good life” while working extra hours to try to pay down debts that rise more quickly than they can be paid. You pay for home insurance and car insurance to protect against any accidents or “acts of God.” You pay for health insurance to cover any medical bills. Although these days, you’re more likely to pay for health insurance that doesn’t cover most of your medical bills.
There’s a reason for this cultural teaching, just as there was a reason for the cultural teaching in the time of Jesus. In those days, cultural survival depended on feeding each other. Our cultural survival depends on an economy that requires us to spend more than we make. Non-participation is not just discouraged, it’s been made nearly impossible.
It’s an insidious economic doctrine. It makes the rich richer while keeping the poor at a minimum level and slowly draining the middle class. It works to get us to think in terms of money and success, not betterment of society. And for many people, it crowds out all other concerns. We become empty, depressed, and angry. Violence increases, yet we think only about controlling the weapons of violence and not its causes– if we think about it at all. Drug addiction and suicide increase, and we think about controlling the means, if we think about it at all. The people of our nation are suffering. But we don’t think about it, because we’re suffering, too. Our reason for existing is to pay the bills of an unfulfilling life, and that’s not much of a reason.
With so much suffering, if ever there was a time to serve God, it is now. But how does a person serve God and not the economy? To follow Jesus, must one give up everything and live on the streets, as He did?
There are people situated such that they can work a 30 or 40 hour week, earn enough money to pay their bills, and have time left over for both family and service to others. But in today’s economy, these are a tiny minority. More often, both one- and two-parent families have at least two jobs just to squeak by.
Of course, there are levels of “squeaking by.” Do we really need a new(ish) car, cable TV, internet, a health club membership, new clothes, a microwave oven, and all the other trappings of American life we’re told we should have? How many toys does my two-year-old need? In my own case, I have jettisoned TV and the health club. I drive a beat-up, 11-year-old Hyundai with over 170,000 miles on it. I generally do not buy new clothes until I’m forced to. And my internet costs $15 per month. My recent move cut fuel expenses for my car from $500 a month to $80. But rent is expensive, and at the moment I can’t afford health insurance. I have a stack of medical bills totaling well over $20,000.
What is a God-seeking person to do?
If you were expecting an answer, I don’t have one. But I do have the question, and it’s worth pondering. In an environment of economic and cultural despair, how does one serve God? Is it possible to serve two masters?
As I said, I don’t have the answer. But I haven’t given up trying to find one.