Stepping through the ethical minefield with Jesus

Before we moved to Warrnambool, we lived in an area of Melbourne which was a hive of ethical activity. Our clothes were locally made or from the op shop. We rode our bikes to buy direct trade coffee, then ducked into organic wholefoods for some ethical groceries. What we couldn’t buy there, we’d get at the IGA, after checking each company against our sustainable supermarket guide. We grew our greens and herbs; experimented with Community Supported Agriculture, but got sick of all those potatoes; so opted into a local veggie box instead. Our honey came from local hives; our socks were made in Brunswick; we purchased gifts from local artisans; our furniture was second hand. Even our house renovation appeared in a green architecture magazine. There were times when we were so ethical, it makes me sick. Of course, we lived this way because we were trying to be followers of Jesus—and because we were surrounded by people also seeking to live more sustainably, the critical mass made it easy. But every now and then, or maybe quite a lot, I’d feel someone, probably me, rolling her eyes because a coffee wasn’t fair, or a chair was from IKEA, or the eggs were from battery hens—and I’d wonder if I’d missed the point.

In tonight’s passage, Jesus tells his disciples not to worry about what they eat, drink, wear and consume. Ten years ago, I would have reminded you that his words were directed to people living at subsistence level: a bad crop, an army raid, a new tax, or the death of a labourer could mean starvation. To these people, banding together and living into God’s culture, sharing what little they had, was good economics; it might mean giving away the last of your barley, but also receiving a bag of onions when you need it. And it’s probably good economics for sweatshop workers in Bangladesh, and rubbish pickers in Bombay, and tomato pickers in California, today—particularly if cooperation leads to a mass movement and a change in migration, environmental or labour laws.

Ten years ago, I would then have pointed out that we are a different audience. Our patterns of consumption have an enormous impact on the earth and on the people who produce the things that we buy. So when Jesus says “Do not worry” about what you will consume, I would have noted that these words are followed by “strive first for God’s priorities.” And, since God made and loves the earth and all that is in it, this means finding ways to live mindfully and sustainably, so that our consumption—our eating, drinking, wearing, and consuming—does not pollute the earth, dishonour animals, or exploit the work of human hands. And I still think this is true.

However, the reality is that when we try to live out God’s economy through ethical consumption, we still participate in the very systems that have led us to this point. We remain consumers, but now with the risk of a judgemental, sanctimonious, legalistic overlay. As the saying goes, everybody knows that we are vegan. The thing is, Jesus is not calling us to a new set of rules, or a new way to distinguish between ethical and unethical living. We are not called to live justly in order to do the right thing or to meet any external criteria; and if our ethics mean that we become judgemental of other people’s choices, or of ourselves when we cannot meet our own high standards; if we become complacent, or unable to accept hospitality because of our self-imposed rules for living: well, then we have missed the point.

Because Jesus is calling us to live with open hearts. And so we live justly because we love God’s earth and God’s people, and we can’t bear to see them hurt through our selfish choices. We live justly because we understand that we are in relationship even with those people whose hands have sewn our shirts and picked our carrots, or whose streams are polluted by our desire for cheap goods. We live justly out of love.

It is in this context that Jesus says, “Do not worry. God knows what you need, and will take care of you.” Don’t exploit people through your selfish choices—but live with an open heart. Accept the gifts that are given to you, even if they offend your ethical standards: for in this way you learn to accept God’s gracious provision, the provision that is made out of love. For we are all entangled in sin and always will be: sins of greed, envy, and desire; sins of environmental degradation, cheap goods, and exploited labour; sins of self-righteousness and complacency. By our own efforts, there is nothing we can do which will set us free us from these sins. They are too big, and too pervasive. But in Christ, we can “strive for God’s culture,” knowing that everything else will be taken care of.

And what is this culture like? Well, Jesus tells us that the kingdom of God is like a party. In other words, it’s generous, hospitable, and relaxed. All sorts of people, with all sorts of values, are invited. In God’s kingdom, we welcome them all, opening up the cupboards and sharing what we have. We glimpse this kingdom when we eat together after the service, sharing food and stories. The kingdom is found telling jokes over the dishes. It’s weeping when others weep, and laughing when others laugh, and praying when others need a prayer. It’s about opening our lives to one another, and together seeking a world where all might participate in God’s economy. In this kingdom, there’s always more than enough love to go around: and when we live in this spirit together, everything else that we need—right down to our food and clothes—will be taken care of, too.

As God’s faithful servants, we are called to do what we can to bring this world into being; and we are called to model this world among us by eating and drinking together, and by sharing what we have and who we are. And we are promised that when we live like this, Jesus Christ will be among us. So live freely! Don’t be anxious! Don’t worry! And do not judge!

Instead, join with others and live into God’s economy. Be content with what you have, place your trust in the Living God, share what you can, and let go of your anxiety. God knows what you need, and will provide for you always. And if God clothes even the wildflowers with such extravagance and beauty, you can expect not just the things you need, but beauty and a wild abundance. Amen. Ω

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