I like to joke that I’m 50% Scottish, but 100% cheap—yet only in certain areas.
Cheese is not one of them. When I had occasion some years back to be in Indianapolis regularly, I always made sure to stop off at this charming shop (now sadly closed, apparently a casualty of COVID) on the north side of town where it was easy to overspend on just two hunks of cheese: this amazing Double Gloucester they imported which was as deliciously tempting as the Comté I adore.
I occasionally overspend on cheese while also, in other areas, find myself constitutionally unable to refuse what some primitive part of my brain takes to be a bargain. Places like Costco are thus a massive temptation for me (easily rationalized by saying I have six people to feed in this household, four of them endlessly ravenous and tall teenagers).
All of this is to say that I have difficulty with one of the recent readings in the Byzantine lectionary, 1 Corinthians 6:12-20. It is a suitably ante-Lenten warning about self-indulgence, ending with an exhortation to remember that we “were bought with a price.”
Thinking with my stomach rather than brain, still less with what St. Paul elsewhere calls “the mind of Christ,” I find this passage almost unfathomable.
Perhaps you do, too. Surely at some point, looking on our own mounting weaknesses and sins, we think God is not really willing to pay the ever-increasing price just for one of us. Perhaps if he could get all of humanity scooped up in one grand bargain of the ages, it might be tolerable for us to be included in the bottom of the bag like some cheap freebie.
But—to put the question most directly—would he have come down and paid just for me? If there were nobody else on the planet, would he have sought me out directly and “bought” me at a price?
I do not think we can appreciate what a startling question St. Paul forces upon us here until we recognize the distortions under which we labor in our present capitalist culture with its fetishizing of efficiency.
The cult of efficiency was analyzed critically by Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, which has sometimes been dismissed as merely an “abortion letter.” But Pope John Paul II’s focus was much wider, and long before he got to moral specifics like abortion and euthanasia, he had masterfully situated them in a context which both then, and perhaps even more so today, we have failed to take seriously.
That context in which we find ourselves is of a “society excessively concerned with efficiency” (#12). This was a theme he returned to repeatedly throughout the letter, but which most commentators seem to have ignored. He noted how insidiously we disguise our worship of efficiency through various clichés: “the so-called ‘quality of life’ is interpreted primarily or exclusively as economic efficiency” (#23).
If there is one thing the Gospels make repeatedly clear, it is that God’s ‘quality of life’ is wildly—and constantly—inefficient in human terms. He doesn’t just occasionally go hog wild in Ye Olde Wine and Cheese Shoppe on the high street in Nazareth. Time and again, the Gospels show us the unbounded generosity of the Father far beyond anything our cheap, impoverished imaginations can conceive. Consider, inter alia, the father of the prodigal who throws a lavish banquet for his wayward wastrel of a son; the shepherd who abandons 99 sheep to go after the one who is lost; the banquet thrown for a bunch of half-dressed homeless peasants after the snobby bourgeoisie and toffs decline the invitation; the costly anointment smeared on the feet of a soon-to-be criminal and dead man.
Thus, to answer our question from earlier, God would gladly come for my salvation. Each of us is worth the cost; none unworthy of the price.
The whole notion of price and cost must, in fact, be severely put to the question. Our capitalist culture again conspires to make us think of these terms in one way only: as a zero-sum game. If I spend, I have less; if you give to me, you will now be forced to go without.
But the divine economy functions according to radically different laws, and challenges us to do likewise.
A man who illustrates this well is the late Dominican Herbert McCabe. He reminds us—if we are worried and feeling guilty, as Catholics seem perpetually to do—that the price God paid for each of us actually cost him nothing, so we can stop being neurotic about it. God creates freely and lavishly, with no expense to be spared in lavishing everything on us because, in fact, there are no expenses at all.
God, thus, is not just some Jeff Bezos in the sky running a spiritual Amazon Store where he counts up profits and expenses, recording what we owe him and what he has shipped to us at what price. For if, McCabe said, God is poor in ways different than we can usually imagine, that also means that he is not rich in the way we think of either: “We cannot speak literally of the riches of God. But I think we can speak literally of the poverty of God….He is literally poor because he simply and literally has no possessions. He takes nothing for his own use.”
This is a wonderfully consoling idea as we start to think about giving things up for Lent and taking on more prayer.
Have you ever felt (once again) guilt in asking God for something in prayer? Perhaps you feel that asking something of God means he will have less in the bank, or fewer gifts to offer to another perhaps more worthy person, so you hesitate or moderate your request.
Don’t bother, McCabe counsels. Ask away. Ask for everything. It costs God nothing, for he has nothing: “God’s creative act is an act of God’s poverty, for God gains nothing by it. God makes without becoming richer.”
We, too, can do this with our love. The more love we give away to the world, the richer we become. Let us, as Lent approaches, aspire to become mega-rich in love and poor in sin, so that, just perhaps, we can begin to understand the “price” God was willing to pay for each one of us.
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