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Is Luxury Compatible With Christianity?

Okay, let’s just be honest. This is a really murky topic because most people will immediately answer “no” to this question. Truthfully, I probably would have, too, just a few years ago. So you can probably anticipate my answer to this dirty question is not the one you’d expect; otherwise, you probably wouldn’t have clicked on this post. And no, this isn’t some clickbaity post that’s going to round out and say, “No, you shouldn’t touch anything luxurious with a 10 foot pole.”

First, let’s talk about where this idea of shirking a luxurious life comes from. Vocabulary time: the technical term for foregoing indulgences for primarily religious purposes is called asceticism. While the precise origin of Christian asceticism is up for debate, it comes in large part as interpretations of biblical texts from early church fathers (e.g. Origen, St. Jerome) who lived in a Greek culture where asceticism in general was praised. The thought was that the shirking of worldly things would produce experiences or mindsets that more closely reflected the divine, so Christian teachers took that idea and ran with it.

Ran with it for so long that it is the dominant thought today.

And to be fair, asceticism definitely exists in the Bible. I’ll point you to Dr. Anthony Le Donne’s great book The Wife of Jesus for more elaborate explanations, but the basic example I’ll point to you hear is of John the Baptizer. You know, the same guy who lived in the wilderness, ate wild honey and locusts, and wore clothes made from camel hair. If asceticism ever needed a poster boy, John the Baptizer is definitely your man.

Interestingly, Le Donne points out that John the Baptizer checks off every box on the asceticism list, Jesus doesn’t really fit the bill. A few examples to support this:

  • Jesus hung out with and was fine taking the support of wealthy women (Luke 8:3)

To quote Le Donne, who quotes New Testament scholar Dale B. Martin, “We now know of several forms of Jewish asceticism in current in Jesus’ day. But Jesus fits none of them.”

Okay, it’s one thing to point out that we have reasonable cause that Jesus was cool with luxurious things… but doesn’t really provide a solid answer. At least, I hope you wouldn’t walk away from this post right here being totally satisfied. So let’s keep going.

For me, I see anything that elevates the human experience as being compatible with our faith. When you think about that way, then it’s sort of a no brainer that luxury no doubt fits in well. Of course, we have to be careful how we define that because it’s only good to promote if all parties involved benefit.

Let’s illustrate with an example. I’m a big fan of a company called Grovemade. Grovemade makes luxury household items out of wood (namely iPhone cases) and sells them to the public at fair but expensive prices. Right now, I can go on Amazon and get an iPhone case for ten bucks whereas a walnut iPhone X case on Grovemade costs $99. Obviously, we know the consumer benefits by getting a beautifully made case.

But we have to keep in mind the flipside. If Grovemade was making their cases in sweatshops over in China, then they wouldn’t be good to promote because the benefit of one person (the consumer) comes at the pain of another (the sweatshop worker). Fortunately, that’s not the case. Grovemade consists of people who take pride in their work and are glad to get to indulge in their own dreams from the revenue that supports them.

It’s a mutually beneficial relationship where both parties are left more open and alive than they were before.

And if you apply this formula to the examples of where Jesus indulged in luxurious activities, you’ll see it plays out well. In the situation where the woman pours perfume on Jesus’ head, read what Jesus has to say when his disciples reprimand her:

“Leave her alone,” Jesus said. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” (Mark 14:6–9 NIV)

In this moment, Jesus is choosing to elevate the humanity of this woman instead of scolding her.

Let me be clear, this isn’t meant to bash asceticism. I think there’s a time and place for wholly foregoing worldly things. After all, Jesus never scolded John the Baptizer for living the way he did. This is more for us to stop beating ourselves on the back every time we want to do something nice for ourselves. The fact that some church leaders beat themselves into oblivion for this false sense that “we have to be lesser” is baffling to me. It just leads to burnout, and then you’re not good to help anybody.

We’ll wrap up there. I hope you appreciate this different insight on an otherwise difficult topic. Catch you in the next post.

Written by

Machine learning engineer by day, spiritual explorer by night.

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