("John the Baptist Preaching," Pieter Brueghel the Younger, 1601, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
This section of the Daily Office reading is what jumped out for me in spades yesterday morning, because it's a huge part of what I believe to be the biggest hindrance to my spiritual growth--understanding "what's enough" in my life. I suspect I am not alone in that struggle, but it's not something in which our culture promotes discussion.
Each phrase in John the Baptist's exhortation to the crowd spoke to me.
“Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” I have been engaged in a series of contentious negotiations with some entities for a year and a half, on some fronts, to "get reimbursed what my services are worth." But really, what does that mean? Who determines "worth?" Is it "what the insurance company will pay me?" Is it "What my business associates get for their services 90 miles down the road? How much more over "cost" is "enough?"
Unfortunately, attempting to "collect no more than what we thought oughta be prescribed for me," has had consequences. One of these tensions has led to a very large uncertainty about my future, and it has caused me to ask myself, "Was I greedy?" I still do not know the answer to that one, and I do not know how it will play out, but living in the tension of it has certainly delineated that what I consider "enough" and what my peers consider "enough" are probably two different things. On occasion, I have a moral struggle about that.
“Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation." Well, I don't "extort," but I certainly allow people to be turned over to bill collection agencies, and it has been my experience that bill collection agencies are less than above board at times in their methods of extracting money from clients...and then there's that "false accusation" part. We all know the word for people who don't pay their bills--"deadbeats."
I realize one of my own flaws in this--I would not impugn a person's race or social status, yet I'm perfectly willing to dismissively use the word "deadbeat" on someone who owes me money, and I may not really know the story behind it. Collecting money for health care services has a certain amount of guilt for me--it always has--because people don't choose to be sick. Yes, they make some choices to not do certain kinds of health maintenance, but doing that maintenance is not a guarantee of wellness. Ill health is a crapshoot much of the time. The ugly truth is that I make reasonably good money on the backs of sick people, and I often rationalize it by saying my bill is not the worst one the person will get.
Again, I'm experiencing the consequences of catering to my comfort. I am uncomfortable hounding people for money--even if I am the one owed--but I don't think twice about dumping someone on the bill collector.
Finally, there's "Be satisfied with your wages.” That's the only part of John the Baptist's exhortation I feel good about--I really do have a sense of "enough" on that, simply because it does not take a whole lot of material stuff to make me happy, and I've learned rewarding lesson after lesson on that. I think about the various things where "less is more" in my life.
Having less "stuff" than most people in my line of work has resulted in a certain amount of security and efficiency to my lifestyle.
Accepting that I am a person very likely called to a single lifestyle has taught me that this lifestyle allows me to be generous to people in ways people with families don't have time.
Living in a somewhat isolated part of the country has taught me I need very few of the "normal" consumer stimulations to be happy.
When I began to tithe, I discovered a new way of looking at things--that what I was doing was not simply a "10% income reduction." Nothing really reduced in my life. Things grew instead.
But those good feelings have still not absolved me of asking more questions of myself. I realized something important. When I am busy congratulating myself about "being happy with less," I am probably diverting my attention from something I'm psychologically hoarding.
Take that laundry list I just wrote for you about my discoveries. A piece of what I told you comes from a deep and holy place. BUT--I have to be honest here. Another piece of what I just told you comes from a quite shallow place--the place where my ego wants you to see me as this model of spiritual discipline. The ugly truth is, there are times I sort of want people to look at me like this 101st Screaming Eagle Airborne Ranger of spiritual discipline. There's a part of me that doesn't just want you to see me as an infantry "grunt" in God's Army of Love, but a very elite grunt.
Which, of course, leads me to the humility that "I still don't quite get it," even though I get it far better than I used to.
You might wonder why I chose the painting above for this discussion.
Notice what's going on slightly to the right of front and center in the painting.
There's a little brown dog sitting on the tail of the cloak of the guy in tan--and the guy doesn't even notice it.
He's so captivated in what John the Baptist has to say, he doesn't even notice there's a dog sitting on his cloak.
For that man, hearing John's words is enough.
If he were to move, he'd notice pretty quickly the dog is restricting his movement. Would he push the dog off? Could he sit still for the dog's sake, so long that his sacrum hurt or his butt fell asleep or he got shooting pains down one leg? I don't know.
So it is with any of the good growing within us. When we are simply "living it" and not thinking about "how we look in it," we will have mostly arrived into it.