Feasting on the Free Lunch of God's Table

“In the first year of the 21st century, a man standing by a highway in the middle of America pulled from his pocket his life savings – $30 – laid it inside a phone booth, and walked away. He was 39 years old, came from a good family, and had been to college. He was not mentally ill, nor an addict. His decision appears to have been an act of free will by a competent adult.”  So begins Mark Sundeen’s book, The Man Who Quit Money, which traces the remarkable life of Daniel Suelo who has lived the last nineteen years without earning or using money, accepting government or organized charity, or even bartering.

Suelo grew up in a Christian home of fundamentalist orientation, and though his faith has broadened, his actions are not a rejection of his upbringing.  Suelo’s life without money is an effort to actually live out the teachings of Christ and the early church—teachings that say you cannot serve God and money, that if you want to be Jesus’s disciple you must give up your possessions, that the love of money is at the root of all kinds of evil.

In many ways Suelo holds a great deal in common with St. Francis, whose feast day we celebrate this Friday.  Francis rejected the money and wealth of the nascent capitalism of his day, forbidding his friars from even touching the stuff.  Francis sought to live in the truth of the Sermon on the Mount, finding food as the birds do and clothing like the flowers.

It would be easy to see Francis and Suelo as people who reject the world through a dour ascetism, but that would be a mistake.  Both the old Saint and the contemporary witness sought to live free from money because they became convinced it was getting in the way of their joy and that a life without money could help them enter into a different kind of economy—an economy of gifts and sharing. 

Suelo, who spent much of life before giving up money working with the poor in Latin America and the United States, came to see that “The people who had the least were the most willing to share...[and] generous cultures produce less waste because excess is shared, whereas stingy nations fill their landfills with leftovers.”  Suelo wanted to be among those generous people and so he found himself on a path that led him, eventually, to give up money all together.

I could not help but think of Suelo and his insights as I read our Gospel and Epistle readings today.  For while the New Testament doesn’t prohibit money, per se, it certainly has a problem with the accumulation of wealth or the seeking of money as an end. The concern of Jesus and his early followers is a kind of radical joy, a celebration that comes when we are free of attachment and ready to enter an economy of sharing and gifts.  It is an invitation to this life that is the good news in this troubling Gospel; it is instruction on how to live this out that is central to our challenging epistle.

In both the New Testament and in the life of Suelo, we eventually learn that the problem really isn’t money in itself, but what money becomes a substitute for; the way money powerfully  makes us trust its provision more than we trust God, the way wealth and money give us a sense of value and meaning.  As Suelo says at one point in the book, “I don't see money as evil or good”.  He went on to explain that the problem is that money brings us into an attachment to an illusion, an illusion of ownership and sufficiency and value apart from the abundant creation God gave us all in common and called good from its inception.  “Attachment to illusion is called idolatry,” says Suelo.  It is an attachment to illusion rooted in luxury that is at the heart of the parable we heard this morning in our Gospel.

 First, let’s say some things in favor of the rich man.  Jesus offers us a picture of a person whose generosity toward the poor is remarkable.  This man, though he enjoys a luxurious life, is not without attention to the poor at his gates.  The rich man clearly lets a beggar with advanced leprosy live by the entrance of his house and more than that, he makes certain this beggar gets the scraps from his table. How many of us would let a beggar sit in our front yard day in and day out? How many people or institutions do you know that let homeless people sleep in their doorways? Yet that is what the rich man does.

What, then, is the problem that Jesus is trying to point out? The scholar David Fitch offers this answer: “the rich man is alienated after death because he thought he had five brothers, when God had actually given him six. While he helped Lazarus, he failed to see him as his brother. He failed to embrace him as family. As generous as he was, the rich man failed to invite Lazarus to his own dinner table.” Fitch goes on to say, “Our relationship with the poor is not to be organized as a program at our local church. Instead, in everyday life we are to come alongside, be present to the poor in a relationship of family.” This is something we can never do if we keep the poor at a distance, if we keep them at the gate and as an object of our charity. When we meet someone seeking help our first question shouldn’t be what do you need, but what is your name? From there we can move on to something beyond transactional giving and into a relationship that invites friendship and family.

The letter to Timothy further explains the call to God’s economy. Addressing those who are wealthy in money, the author invites them to be rich in good works and to readily give away their private resources.  The word translated as “generous” here is κοινωνικός (koinōnikos)—which could be better rendered, communalists or those who hold things in common.  If we follow the advice of this Epistle, we who have more than enough are not called simply to give plenty in charity, but instead to enter into a new kind of communalism in which we share freely with all those in need as though they are family.  This requires us to be in relationship with the poor, living among those with whom we are to share, rather than at a distance behind the gates that keep them as objects.

As someone who has never had less than more-than-enough, I know that the challenge of the New Testament is a difficult one to know how to live into.  I have plenty and I can’t say I’m all that willing to share it.  If I’m honest, I like money and I enjoy having what it affords. I’d much rather just write a check or give a quick handout than enter into a real relationship of family and friendship with someone in need.  I’d much rather do what most Christian interpreters have done with these texts: gloss and explain away the radical nature of the New Testament.  But through Francis and Suelo and others I am challenged to see these texts in all their power, and I am also given the hope that God’s economy of generous life is available to even people like me.

In Moab, where Suelo spends most of his time, there was for many years a weekly gathering called “free lunch.”  It was not a charity.  It was simply an answer to food waste through a common meal.  Leftover food would be collected from restaurants and stores, a true potluck of varied dishes.  People from across the city would gather in a local park to eat the food together, doing what economists say is impossible--enjoy a free lunch.  Side by side businesspeople in suits would dine with the houseless, the employed and unemployed and over employed, the poor and the getting by and the wealthy all together around a common table built through sharing. 

It is a meal like this that I imagine Jesus often had with his disciples, some rich, some poor—all sharing so that those distinctions disappeared into the common joy of the Kingdom.  It is to that common life that we are being called in our Gospel.  We too can enjoy such meals and the community born out of them, but only if we are willing to let loose of our possessions, give up money as our security and meaning, and let go of our luxuries to live in the satisfactions of enough.  It is not a matter of how much we give or give up, but rather how much we are willing to share in the joyful community of Christ’s reign, and that should be with everything we have. Amen.

Ragan Sutterfield