June 23, 2013
About a week ago, I was feeling a bit down. And then I found in my inbox an e-mail from one of my favorite clothing stores: “40% Off Most New Arrivals for Summer!” it proclaimed. Now 15% or 25% off would have meant hitting delete, but 40% off? What a steal! Plus, I reasoned, after such a long winter, I deserved to indulge in some new clothes (never mind that I had in my closet enough clothes in good repair that I could go at least a month without doing laundry and still be able to clothe myself). So I spent the next hour browsing the site, adding a pink v-neck here, a black peasant top here, until I had over a dozen selections in my cart. Click “Submit Order.” I do not love the actual act of shopping, but the act of buying new clothes—the promise of a new look, the hope of feeling better about myself because of this new look, the possibility that even my identity will shift slightly as I clothe myself differently—brings with it something akin to euphoria.
“Thump … Ding dong.” Packages hitting the ground, the UPS carrier ringing the doorbell before retreating to his brown van. I pause for a second, considering the environmental impact of my online shopping (the plane that had to bring the clothes here, the van that delivered it to my door). But that thought does not stay in my mind for long, as I giddily dash to my bedroom, ready for my own personal fashion show.
In this week’s Gospel, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” As it turns out, there are rumors going around that Jesus is John the Baptist, Elijah, or another prophet of old who has come back to life. Jesus follows up this question by asking his disciples who they say that he is. Peter’s response demonstrates that he has sensed that Jesus is someone different than who the crowds make him out to be, as he proclaims that Jesus is the Messiah of God. Peter believes that Jesus is the Chosen One of God, someone foretold by the prophets who will come to restore power to God’s people and to defeat the enemies of God’s people.
Jesus does not deny being the Messiah, but he goes on to provide a very different image of who the Messiah is, using a different messianic term, Son of Man, to describe himself. The Son of Man is not a political ruler who will overthrow the Roman government and institute a golden age for Judaism. The Son of Man will suffer, be rejected and put to death, and then be raised on the third day. Then Jesus lays out three conditions of discipleship: deny yourself, take up your cross daily, and follow me.
The first thing Jesus says is to deny yourself. Talk of self-denial likely brings to mind Lenten seasons without chocolate or television or video games, but as Joan Mitchell argues, “Jesus asks something more positive and deeper. He challenges his disciples to reorient themselves radically so that the self is no longer the center.”* The point is that we are not called to give something up just for the sake of giving something up; we are called to think about others and God before we think about ourselves. We are called to develop a new relationship to the self, one in which the self is not always the most important.
So as I read this Gospel surrounded by my two boxes of new clothes, the point for me is not that I deny myself the experience of shopping. Rather, the point is that I learn to think about how my shopping reflects who I am before God and how my shopping affects other people and the world in which we live together. Does my worth as a child of God come because I am a consumer? Did I get these clothes so cheaply because a woman or small child worked in horrible conditions and did not get paid a living wage? How does my desire to have new clothes and keep up with trends go against the idea of living simply so that others (and our earth) may simply live?
Mitchell goes on to write, “The requirement to take up the cross daily makes clear that following Jesus will inevitably and regularly bring us into conflict with the powers that be.” Consumerism is a major power in our society. It is easy to go along with that power, buying new things so that we feel better about ourselves. For me, taking up my cross certainly needs to involve working to change my attitude toward and behaviors of consumerism. And this cannot just be denial. Instead of just thinking of consumerism as bad and beating myself up for feeling good when I put on new clothes, I need to think constructively about what I can replace this part of myself with positively. I can celebrate my identity as a beloved child of God, accepted and beautiful as I am because God made me this way. I can practice thrift store shopping and feel good about getting something that is new to me while also allowing me to reuse something someone else was ready to be finished with. I can make a point of researching where the clothes I buy are made, so that I can support companies that provide good working conditions and pay a fair wage. Taking up our cross is never easy work, but that does not mean we shouldn’t find ways to feel good about the disciples we are training to be as we follow in Christ’s footsteps.
Who do you say that Jesus is?
When you hear the phrase, “Deny yourself,” what do you think of? Does it help to think of denial as not just self-denial in negative terms but rather as re-orienting yourself to think more of God and others? Why or why not?
What do you think is a cross you are called to take up daily? How might taking up this cross put you in conflict with the powers that be in the world?
*Joan Mitchell, Sunday by Sunday, vol. 22, no. 40, June 23, 2013.