Last Christmas an argument broke out in my house. Not particularly unusual for a family Christmas, you might think. But it wasn’t about who opened their presents before everyone else, or who had control of the TV remote. We didn’t even argue when my brother inevitably cheated at that board game. This time it was different.
For her birthday a few weeks earlier, my mum had given my sister some trousers. These weren’t any old trousers, they were a designer pair that she’d wanted for ages and they weren’t cheap. She normally suffers from the birthday-close-to-Christmas-means-just-one-present problem, so we figured we probably owed her some good presents for once. When she returned from uni at Christmas I asked her where they were (admittedly because I wanted to borrow them). She replied casually that she’d given them to a homeless girl that she’d met at a soup kitchen.
I’m all for supporting local homeless projects, but you can understand why the argument erupted. Surely, she could have given her some different trousers? Some that hadn’t been a heartfelt present from her beloved mother. Some that had been more than just a couple of weeks old. Some that hadn’t been quite so expensive.
But looking back, I think my sister understood something that we failed to. She understood what the early Church meant when they said if I’ve got two coats, then I’ve stolen one, because there are still people who have none.
The early Church existed in a community that shared all they had, that gathered together their possessions and redistributed them so that everyone had enough. I don’t think they did this because they were being nice. I think they recognised that nothing we own really belongs to us, and on recognising that it belongs to God we can’t do anything but use it in the way God intended. God created a world that would provide enough for everyone, so when we have significantly more than other people in the world we have stolen from them what God provided.
Can you be rich and generous? Of course you can. For all the media stories we read of rich people who splash out on extravagant and unnecessary commodities, I bet there are twice as many stories out there about rich people who are incredibly generous with their money.
But can you be rich and radically generous? I’m not so sure. Because while we still have so much more than the person who has least we are not using our resources in the way God intended. The early Church practised a radical generosity not because it was required of them, but because when they saw people around with less than them there was no option but to readdress the balance of wealth.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think God’s intention is for us all to sell all we have and live in poverty. I think God wants us to be comfortable, to live good lives and enjoy the abundance that He has provided. But I do believe that He doesn’t want us to be comfortable at the expense of other people’s discomfort.
Sometimes we forget that we are part of a community, a family in which God has provided enough for everyone’s needs but which we have unfairly distributed. Perhaps if we all tried to move a little bit towards being radically generous and ensuring that everyone receives their fair share of God’s provision, then we might see a day when no one has to live in poverty.
Shane Claiborne said: “The great tragedy of the Church is not that we don’t care for the poor, but that we don’t know the poor.”
We aren’t just called to care for the poor, we are called to live alongside them and to make sure that the resources provided for us all are shared out properly. But today money has become a barrier to knowing the poor – I don’t think you can be rich and truly exist alongside the poor. And if we’re not at the side of the poor, are we really following in the way of Jesus?