I read a story the other day about a person shopping at the grocery store, who overheard two unmasked men mocking people who were masked and talking about how they were too “tough” to wear masks. The person writing the story shared that when she got to the cashier, the cashier looked at her wearily and thanked her for wearing a mask, noting that she wore her own mask to protect the customers, and she appreciated the shopper wearing a mask for the protection of people she encountered.
What struck me about this story was not the inherent selfishness of the two men who refused to mask in public, but the fact that the cashier found it noteworthy to comment on someone who WAS wearing a mask, who WAS offering some level of protection to the people with whom she came into close proximity. What struck me was the fact that we assume, societally, that this level of selfishness is our standard, and anything beyond that is remarkable. Generosity of spirit is remarkable. Being willing to put up with the minor level of discomfort and irritation that we have to deal with when we wear a mask for an hour or so is remarkable. Caring enough about our fellow creatures that we are willing to prioritize their safety and needs above our own comfort and wants is remarkable.
There are people protesting against the restrictions that have been placed on us due to the pandemic: they protest the continued closure of the economy, or the slow rate at which it is being reopened, despite the fact that CDC does not recommend reopening until 14 days of slowed spread have been tracked. There are people protesting against some cities’ requirements that, as businesses reopen, they collect information about who is in their buildings, so they can to notify anyone who has been potentially exposed so that they can self-isolate and monitor for symptoms.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “abundant” as “existing or occurring in large amounts: ample.” We are used to thinking about abundance in a particular way in the United States. After all, the doctrine of Manifest Destiny was based on abundance: abundant land for anyone who wanted to try to pull themselves up by their bootstraps in the newly-opened West, to live their lives on their own terms, free from near neighbors or the constraints of whatever level of society they had lived in in the East, free to start their lives over, to feel the air on their faces and the wind at their backs. Free to succeed or fail on their own merits. Free to stake their claim for so-called “virgin” territory, never mind that there was another tribe of people who may have lived on that land for thousands of years.
We can still see this attitude of our particularly American interpretation of abundance in the responses some people have to the pandemic: this sense of people looking out for themselves, prioritizing their own interests over the safety of others. Our current acceptance of selfishness as the baseline, unremarkable cultural attitude has its roots in Manifest Destiny, an idea that has infused most of American life for the last 200 years.
It is in response to this baseline of selfishness that stories of gratitude and of giving back gain their strength. After all, as Christians, we have a sense that we are called to a different response, a better response – but as Americans, with our deeply rooted sense of Manifest Destiny, we often find these sides of ourselves at war with each other. What sort of abundance was Jesus talking about when he said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly?” Was it this abundance that is present in Manifest Destiny, a sense of entitlement, of putting ourselves and our own priorities before others?
What about the people who are in essential positions? Of course, we think frequently about the “heroes of healthcare:” the nurses and doctors who go to work in the ERs and ICUs, witnessing hour after hour of tragedy, who implore us on social media to self-isolate, to follow social distancing regulations, to stay safe and not put ourselves at risk. And we are beginning to see the toll that these long hours of work under traumatic conditions is taking. There are reports of ER and ICU nurses and doctors in hot spots who are suffering from PTSD. How does this sort of entitlement abundance benefit them? Are they part of the “they” about whom Jesus spoke?
What about the other workers who are labeled “essential” in this crisis? The ones who work in housekeeping, the grocery store clerks and gas station attendants? The meat packers? The people who fill the jobs that, only a short time ago, our society was arguing over whether they deserved to be paid a living wage. The people on the short end of the economic stick, the ones who have suffered for years under our economic abundance? These are the very same people now suffering under our American devotion to the ideal of abundance during the pandemic, the ideal that if we want it, we are entitled to it, regardless of the suffering it causes others? Are they part of the “they” about whom Jesus spoke?
Jesus’ idea of abundance is different from ours. It is not abundance that Jesus promises, but abundant life – not a collection of things or the ability to prioritize our own wants over the needs of others, but a life both physical and spiritual. I want to suggest that what Jesus means by abundant life is a rich life, a fulfilled life – a life in which love of God plays a central role, a life rooted in and growing into the faith that we are given in Christ.
But who are “they,” the recipients of this abundant life? Jesus tells us that he is the gate, and they are the ones who enter through the gate to find salvation and rich pasture. The metaphor of rich pasture suggests an interpretation of abundance, too: those who are the beneficiaries of rich pasture, in this case the sheep of Jesus’ metaphor, are not rooted in a kind of pastoral Manifest Destiny. They are not concerned with getting their own whether someone else has enough or not. They are not concerned with hoarding, or stockpiling, or prioritizing their own wants over the safety of another. In a rich pasture, there is plenty for everyone, and no one goes without. Everyone has enough to sustain life, and even to savor that sweet mouthful of clover, and to rest assured and comforted that the shepherd watches over them, keeping them safe and secure. I can’t claim to know anything about the spiritual life of sheep, but I know that in our own lives, there is a spiritual component to resting assured. That’s why we sing, “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!”
The “they” to whom Jesus refers are all those who know Jesus, who are the sheep of his pasture, who recognize his voice and find comfort and assurance in his presence. Jesus is both the shepherd, calling and watching over us, and the gate, by which we enter the kingdom.
But a gate implies a fence – a keeping out and a letting in. So who or what is kept out, and who or what is let in? How does this idea of a gate balance with our American ideal of Manifest Destiny?
In an American ethos, the gate keeps out the undesirables, the have nots, the ones who don’t fit our ideal of who belongs and who doesn’t. The gate keeps out the ones we discount when we look to our own comfort, when we prize our own entitlement over the well-being of others.
But in a Christian ethos, a gate is not about keeping out or letting in. A gate is about well-being. It is simply a narrowed opening between rich pasture and rich pasture, an opportunity for the shepherd to make sure everyone is accounted for, and everyone is receiving abundant life. It is a chance for us to hear again the shepherd’s voice, to be reminded that we are loved and cared for. It is a reminder to us that the only true, lasting abundance in life comes from the One who creates, redeems, and sustains us, and there is more than enough to go around.