In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus instructs a rich young man in how to follow him: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21 NRSV) In an age of prosperity gospel preachers, this passage can seem puzzling and is often ignored by the rich who do, indeed, want to appear Christian without giving up their possessions.
But there’s wisdom in Jesus’ words that are echoed in other religions. The Buddha had to give up his wealth and power before he could reach enlightenment. Islam teaches to give charity, enjoining Muslims to make it a regular practice. (Quran 2:177) And ascetics and spiritual seekers of all traditions have long recognized the need to shed their possessions in order to seek spiritual truth.
The reason for this isn’t some inherent evil in having wealth and power; in fact, it could be argued that Jesus and the Buddha are exemplars for how to wield power in a virtuous way. Rather, it’s because that wealth and power so often gets in the way of following the tenants of faith that it’s necessary to lose what you have before you can truly follow the ways of love and enlightenment.
We become so settled in the way things are that it’s necessary to shake up our entire lives in order to realize what’s truly important.
I’ve been thinking about these teachings as I’ve watched the continued debate in our country over precautions against Covid-19, specifically about whether folks should be required to wear masks and social distance. When something as simple as wearing a mask to prevent the unnecessary spread of germs has become a partisan political issue, I can’t help but wonder what’s really at stake here. Are we really willing to put other people’s lives in jeopardy just to try to prove the point that no one can force us to do something?
In fact, for all the legal arguments that have been made for people’s supposed right to not wear a mask, mere legality is one of the weakest arguments a person can make for something. Equating legality with morality is a deflection to try to let us off the hook of determining the morality of a course of action.
If we truly believe in love and we are being told by all credible scientific and medical sources that wearing a mask could potentially save a person’s life by preventing them from getting Covid-19, is it really a loving act to stubbornly refuse to wear a mask just to prove some abstract point about liberty?
As religious people who are called to love, we should be the ones setting the example for what compassion calls us to do. The relative inconveniences of wearing a mask are greatly outweighed by their potential to prevent the most vulnerable in our society from contracting a potentially deadly disease.
Is it loving to say you care more about your personal comfort than preventing vulnerable people from contracting and potentially dying from a preventable disease, or is it the kind of selfishness that Jesus and the Buddha were concerned about?
So, maybe it’s time for us to give away our beliefs to follow the path of love. If clinging stubbornly to an abstraction is preventing us from living the path of compassion, maybe it’s time to reexamine whether we’re really following in the steps of the great spiritual teachers.
Rev. Chris Rothbauer (they/them/their) is minister of Auburn Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. A native of Southern Indiana, they live in Auburn with their partner, a senior rescue beagle, and a spoiled rotten cat. All opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position of Auburn Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.