A Theory of Everything

“In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:33)

“Everything” is a funny word. You’d think its meaning would be self-explanatory (you know, like everything), but it turns out that everything’s relative and that everything can mean just about anything but everything or even nothing at all.

Say you’re a kid and the teacher tells you to take everything off your desk. You know you’re supposed to sweep your desktop clean. Or say you can’t find your keys so you dump everything out of your purse—that means all the contents of your purse are now piled in one cluttered heap on the table. To defrost your freezer, you remove everything unless you happen to like the smell of rotten meat. When you go through security at the airport and the TSA tuff orders you to remove everything from your pockets, you know that he means every item. In fact, if you’re unsure, you might ask, “Even Zu Zu’s petals?” to which the guy barks impatiently, “I said everything, buster!” In situations like these “everything” really does mean everything.

But very quickly things can get complicated. When we say “God made everything” we don’t mean that he made himself, even though he’s a part of everything. Sometimes the Bible has to clarify itself, like when the Apostle Paul writes about Jesus: “Now when it says that everything has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ.” So here “everything” doesn’t actually mean everything, just almost everything. But let’s take real life instead. Say your mom yells at you, “Your room is a pig sty! Get in there and pick up everything from the floor!” Fearing for your life, you madly scoop up your toys and dirty clothes and hide them in your closet. You do not, however, pick up the bed, the desk, the dresser, or the chair—all of which are on the floor too. You know that your mom doesn’t mean those things. In this case, everything means only what she doesn’t want on the floor. Or say you invite some friends over for a party and tell them “No need to bring anything; I’ll provide everything.” What you mean by “everything” isn’t everything, only what you will need for the party. So, you see, sometimes everything doesn’t actually mean “everything” but only what you mean it to mean at the time you mean it, which is a good thing. As comedian Steven Wright notes, “You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?”

Sometimes everything doesn’t really mean anything. Gypsy Rose sings “Everything’s coming up roses,” which only means “Gee, things are going swell for me right now” not that she’s suddenly found herself neck-deep in flowers. And what does “Winning isn’t everything” mean anyway? All I know for sure is that winning isn’t losing. In cases like these, everything doesn’t really refer to anything at all; it’s only a place marker for something else that isn’t there. As Bertrand Russell points out, “Everything is vague to a degree you do not realize till you have tried to make it precise.” In other words, the word everything only means something when it doesn’t mean anything exactly.

So what does Jesus mean by “any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple”? I’ll tell you one thing: the Jew better not mean everything because, if he does, I am so much freaking toast. Making it more confusing is that I don’t have everything; I only have something. Maybe he means I only must give up something. Maybe I can have my pick of what to give up, like my collection of 8-track tapes, for example. But maybe Jesus only means that I’m just not supposed to set my heart on anything that I’m not supposed to. (I love the “heart” teachings since they never affect reality.) So maybe I can keep all of my stuff as long as I don’t want it too much. No matter what, there’s no way he can possibly mean for me to actually hand over all my stuff as a condition for being a Christian for Christ’s sake! That’d be a sure-fire way to shrink Christendom down to about thirteen people, none of whom I’d probably want to associate with anyway.

Look, I’m all for being a Christian as much as it’s reasonably possible to be one in this day and age. If Jesus wants to talk in fuzzy-wuzzies that’s fine and dandy. But if he actually means for me to give up everything, he should have just said so.

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