What would Jesus give my brother-in-law for Christmas? Come on, Jesus, it's your birthday. How about a little guidance?
I know Jesus would want me to avoid consumerism, making an idol out of our possessions and the status we gain from them. I know he'd want me to avoid consumption that breeds greed and gluttony, or implicates me in exploited labor or environmental degradation. But consumption - the throughput of physical materials in our lives - is not optional. And our faith tells us that with God's help, we can do it well, even virtuously.
Christians turn to the Bible for guidance, though its advice is rarely simple or straightforward. Here are five passages that guide my thinking.
The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17)
Among the "thou shalt not"s in this list, the Decalogue demands, "you shall not covet." Covetousness, or envy, is also named among the "seven deadly sins." Sin is not the end of the story, but it is an appropriate place to start. Covetous consumption lures us into personal sin and complicity in systemic sins.
The Ten Commandments also include "remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy." The Sabbath is a day of rest from labor, of joyful feasting, and abstention from activities that disrupt the day's peace. This includes avoiding shopping on the Sabbath (Nehemiah 10:31). Though few Christians observe a scrupulous Sabbath, this commandment is far from irrelevant to modern life. For those of us who feel "too busy" to be reflective about our lifestyle choices, including consumption, the Sabbath offers a different perspective. God commands that we make time for contemplation, celebration, and community; time to focus on what God wants, rather than what we want.
Do Not Worry: Matthew 6:25-33, Luke 12:22-34
This is a passage that makes me wonder how any of us can do what Jesus asks. He commands: "do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear." Precisely this worry forms the essence of much contemporary consumerism, but Jesus says to drop it. Experience tells me this is nearly impossible... but not completely impossible. In any case, Jesus is not opposing consumption itself. "Your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things," he reassures, promising that "all these things will be given to you." Our needs will be met, but not through misguided worry or obsession about "stuff," and not necessarily the way we envision it. But God's generosity will not fail, Jesus promises, if his followers heed the pivotal imperative, to "strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness."
Feeding miracles: Matthew 14:13-21, 15:32-39, Mark 6:32-44, 8:1-10, Luke 9:10-17, John 6:1-15.
Facing huge crowds of hungry people, the disciples start to panic. Meanwhile, Jesus takes a few loaves and fish, blesses and breaks them, and feeds everyone. These feeding miracles happen in every gospel, sometimes more than once. It reminds me of the Manna, which came out of thin air to sustain the Israelites for years in the desert (Exodus 16). Manna, this bread from heaven, is a gift from God but it comes with strings attached: only gather what you need; do not hoard it for tomorrow. Those who tried to stockpile manna found that it had gone rancid. Similarly, in the feeding miracles, Jesus creates a context of sufficiency (enough for all) and sharing (they eat together), in which the leftovers are gathered collectively, not hoarded individually. These feeding miracles also prefigure the resurrected Jesus who, unrecognized by the disciples as they walk the road to Emmaus, finally becomes known when he blesses, breaks, and shares bread (Luke 24:13-31). Exuberant feasts that feature blessing and sharing food make appearances throughout the Bible. Arguably, Christ is present whenever we bless, break, and share creation's abundance.
Early Christian sharing: Acts 2:44-47
The business with the rich young man who will not give up his riches to follow Jesus, and the saying about the camel and the eye of the needle, leave lingering questions among the early followers of Jesus (Matthew 19, Mark 10, Luke 18). Must everyone become poor in order to be holy? Acts 2 suggests that the aim is not poverty but radical availability to one another. "All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need." Relinquishing wealth need not mean becoming poor, if it means joining a community of people who know each other's needs and share what they have, taking pains to provide for one another. The early followers of Jesus "broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God." That is joyful, appropriate, shared Christian consumption.
The Lord's Supper: Matthew 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:15-20
"Take, eat," Jesus says; "this is my body." Christians believe there is forgiveness in the ritual of communion, forgiveness we very much need. Our consumption can devastate; when the man and woman ate of the fruit of the tree in the garden (Genesis 3), wrongful consumption ushered sin and suffering into the world. Our consumption still causes harm, but it doesn't have to be that way. Consumption can, and should, be holy. Worship is, among other things, training for holy consumption. "To live," writes Wendell Berry, "we must daily break the body and shed the blood of creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, and reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, and destructively, it is a desecration." May all of our consumption be such a sacrament, more holy than it is harmful.
It isn't a guidebook or a top ten list. (And I still don't know what to get my brother-in-law!) But I know that my consumption should avoid sin, celebrate God's abundant generosity, create communion with my neighbor, and manifest Christ's holy presence. I know that it's worthwhile to contemplate my consumption, even in this busy season.
Bible passages are from the New Revised Standard Version.
Berry, Wendell, The Gift of Good Land (San Francisco: North Point, 1981), 281.