In 1999 I left my small town in northeast Alabama and confidently entered college to study religion, certain that the Bible was the inerrant word of God and that anything other than its literal interpretation signified a lack of faith.
Despite my parents’ more metaphorical reading of the Bible, I was influenced by youth pastors and friends whose theology was rooted in a literalist understanding of Scripture. I took them at their word until my second semester of college when, in a biblical studies class, I began to realize the difficulties of such an approach. I read about the two creation stories in Genesis, and the arguments between Paul and James.
But more than anything else, the undoing of my literalist faith came about when I realized that those who were so adamant about believing in an actual flood or seven-day creation rarely took Jesus’ teachings literally. It seemed to me that the proponents of inerrancy never argued for a literal interpretation of Jesus’ teaching when such behavior—loving our enemies or giving up all our possessions—profoundly challenged their lives.
In the years since, my faith has come to mirror that of my parents: Wesleyan with a deep appreciation for symbol and metaphor within Scripture. However, I have constantly struggled with the question, “What if Jesus really did mean what he said?”
What if he really meant that we are to love our enemies and turn the other cheek? What if he really meant that the prostitutes and sinners are entering God’s kingdom before the religious elite (not a comforting thought for a professional minister)? What if he really did mean that we cannot be his followers unless we give all that we have to the poor?
Of all Jesus’ teachings, I struggle most with those involving possessions. In the Gospels, it seems that those who followed Jesus left virtually all of their belongings (and often homes and families) behind. This struggle has become more profound for me since I graduated from seminary and started a church in the poorest neighborhood in the state of Alabama. In Birmingham’s West End, my starting salary (and housing allowance) was nearly three times more than my neighbors’ median income. (Not to mention my health insurance and pension.)
Even when I decided to take a pay cut to live more in “solidarity” with my neighbors, I was, and still am, making nearly twice their median income. More challenging than these simple statistics are stories of the people in my community who have no trouble taking Jesus’ teachings on possessions seriously.
People like Melvin, who is homeless and empties his coins every week in the offering plate. He leaves church with only the clothes on his back. People like Ms. Earnestine, who has taken three abused children and two homeless people into her home, and supports them on an income that is half of mine—which supports only me. People like Clarissa, a 17-year-old special-needs girl, who, for her birthday, gave all her presents to her friend, Gabriel, who had lost all her toys when her house burned down.
When I try to dismiss Jesus’ teachings about possessions as unrealistic, Melvin, Earnestine, and Clarissa serve as stark reminder that these decisions are not impossible; they’re just hard.
Maybe that is why Jesus, toward the end of the Gospel of Matthew, told us that if we want to find him, we must find him in the least of these. It’s not only that serving the hungry, poor, and sick is a good thing to do, but that it’s these people who can teach the more privileged, like me, what it means to have enough faith to take Jesus’ teachings seriously.
Being in community with Melvin, Earnestine, and Clarissa has helped me develop the faith to give up more of my possessions. I still have more than I need, but I have slowly made a little progress. Perhaps that is why Jesus always brought poor people with him whenever he was invited to dine with the rich and privileged. When we are in the presence of those who have so little, we are forced to confront and struggle with the abundance of our own possessions.
When we live in community with people who force us to confront these difficult questions—asking ourselves how the Gospels apply to our lives—perhaps we are taking the first step toward taking Jesus’ teachings seriously, maybe even literally.
R.G. Lyons D’06 leads the Community Church without Walls, a network of five house churches in the West End neighborhood of Birmingham, Ala.