For the first time in history retired folk of the working class must ponder this question: how should I spend my time? After the Social Security Act of 1935, and the economic boom of WWII, when jobs were plentiful and salaries on the increase, many of the working class found they could retire and live comfortably without being forced to supplement their retirement income—a situation that formerly appertained only to the independently wealthy. Today my wife and I are flexible enough to begin the day with “Well what are you doing today?” Less than a hundred years ago such a question would have been unimaginable for members of the working class. The aged, having no pension or other means of support, would still be scrambling to eke out a daily living.
I thought about this question last Saturday while struggling with the Greek prologue to a turn-of-the-century novel. The novel (Η Φóνισσα, The Murderess) was written by Aleksandros Papadiamantis in 1903. The prologue (1971) by Giannis Katzinis is written in rather turgid and inflated Greek (my apologies to Katzinis). Some might consider such a pedantic exercise a rather extravagant and wasteful use of personal time (about 4 hours each week), and wonder why am I not doing something more beneficial for society/the church/humanity, etc. with my time? Such a question leads me in turn to the bigger question: exactly what should I be doing with my time, when paid employment is no longer necessary?
I am well aware of the numerous appeals from charitable, educational, public, and religious groups for money and volunteers to support their causes—actually more in the recent past than I can ever remember. These appeals for money and volunteers prompt for me a more specific and personal question: should appeals from charities for gifts and volunteer service, and solicitations for “pay-back” take precedence over individual activities of personal interest with regard to flexible time and disposable income?
It seems to me that there are four broad but basic reasons why people in reasonably good health spend their time and money as they do: personal necessity, personal interest, humanitarian and religious reasons, and public welfare concerns.
If the Jesus tradition and the Christian tradition (they are not the same thing) are drawn upon for help in making sense of things in life, little practical guidance will be found to help resolve the question as to how flexible time and disposable income should be spent.
I know of nothing specifically on point in the early Christian tradition that helps the retired working class practically balance the numerous appeals for their time and resources by charitable groups. At least two stories and several sayings in the Jesus tradition (as critically assessed), however, at least relate to this issue.
To the man who asked Jesus what must he do to inherit eternal life, Jesus said sell what you have, give to the poor, and follow me (Mark 10:17-22). The gospels represent Jesus as a kind of wandering mendicant—or at least as someone who depended solely on God (a cynic would interpret this as depending on the kindness of others) for his daily needs (Matt 6:25-33). The story suggests that there are no such concepts as disposable funds and discretionary time; rather one must be fully engaged with Jesus in homeless “mendicancy.” Here is a saying from the Gospel of Thomas (69B) that probably originated with Jesus, which reflects a similar attitude: “Those who go hungry to fill the starving belly of another are blessed.” In other words all your resources are at the disposal of the needy other. The saying simply does not address the needs of the one blessed—so exactly how long must I go hungry before I tend to my own very practical needs?
Oddly enough Paul is more practical in soliciting funds as an offering from his “gatherings of saints” for the poor “saints” in Jerusalem (1 Cor 16:1-4; 2 Cor 8-9; Gal 2:10; Rom 15:25-29). His principle seems to be proportionate giving based on what a person has (2 Cor 12-13). Even though he encouraged a liberal attitude in giving (2 Cor 8:3-4, he specifically did not encourage them to exhaust their own resources (2 Cor 8:13), and he left it up to the individual to decide what should be his/her part in the offering (2 Cor 9:7; 1 Cor 16:2). He was, however, convinced that the “Gentile gatherings of saints” had an obligation to assist the poor saints in Jerusalem (Rom 15:27).
If one follows Jesus and the choice offered to the man in the gospel story, the result will be that the candle of one’s charity will flame rather brilliantly for the moment—but eventually it dies. If one takes the attitude “I have mine; you get yours,” and turns a deaf ear to the evident need all around the result eventually will be that the world becomes a jungle in which only the fittest and the most ruthless survive. The responsible answer seems to lie somewhere between these two alternatives—and where that point lies is the individual’s choice.
For my part, tomorrow, I will finish the turgid Greek introduction to the Papadiamantis novel, Η Φóνισσα, and the following week I will begin reading the novel itself. I only hope the Greek of Papadiamantis is more accessible.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University