Justice doesn’t just happen; it must be pursued. This pursuit plays out in the most practical ways, and frugality—the proper handling of our resources—will be a great ally. When Yochanan the immerser warned the people of the wrath to come and urged them to bring forth fruit worthy of repentance, they asked, “What shall we do then?” Yochanan responded with specific examples of righteous behavior involving possessions:
“He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.” Then tax collectors came also to be immersed, and said to him, “Rabbi, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than what is appointed you.” And the soldiers likewise asked him, saying, “And what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do violence to no one, neither accuse anyone falsely; and be content with your wages.” (Luke 3:7-14)
In Jewish thought sharing with the needy is termed tzedakah, or righteousness. Tzedakah in turn requires frugality, proper respect and application of the material resources G-d has provided. Appropriately, in our Mussar study, the emphasis on righteousness is followed by a week of emphasis on frugality.
One of the traditional practices of Mussar is taking a personal inventory; prayerfully reviewing our deeds, confessing wrongs we have done, and committing to make amends. Yochanan’s words to three different groups suggest three questions for personal inventory, all of which relate to frugality:
- Have I consistently shared my tunic and food, all my resources, with those in need? (Luke 3:11)
- Have I been fair in acquiring these resources, in my business practices and work ethic, taking only what is appointed me? (Luke 3:13)
- Have I refrained from coercion, manipulation, and falsehood in acquiring my livelihood? (Luke 3:14)
Frugality is related to righteousness, which is of great value in the sight of G-d. The world, on the other hand, tends to be more impressed with conspicuous consumption. And we’re tempted to favor it in our religious world as well.
For if a man wearing a gold watch and an expensive suit comes into your synagogue, and a homeless person in smelly rags comes in right after him, and you show respect to the man in the suit and say, ‘Please, sir, sit here in a good spot,” and you ignore the poor man or say, “Here’s a nice seat in the back row,” are you not showing partiality and proving to be judges with bad hearts? (James 2:2-4).
This passage reminds me of Alan, a member of the Messianic synagogue here in Albuquerque who died suddenly of a heart attack a couple of years ago. Alan lived out of his van, often in the synagogue parking lot, but many friends came up during his funeral to testify of how deeply he had touched their lives and encouraged their faith in Yeshua. Because he was so well loved and respected, several people had offered him places to stay, but he always declined. “I’m OK in my van and I can reach the homeless for Yeshua better if I’m homeless myself.” I don’t know whether Alan was practicing frugality or was just plain down-and-out, but he demonstrated that modest resources are no barrier to the righteousness of G-d.