The Gospel and Consumerism
February 15, 2004
Luke 6:17, 20-26
Two old friends were catching up on their lives over drinks at a sidewalk café. The one said to the other, “Why is it that you have not yet been married?” The other friend said, “Well to tell the truth, I have been looking my whole life long for the perfect woman. There were several times where I thought I had found her. Once in Barcelona I met a woman who was beautiful and intelligent and I was smitten to the heart. I thought certainly this is the woman that I should marry. Then I found out that she was vain and conceited and so that relationship came to an end. Then once in Boston I met a woman who was outgoing and generous. She seemed perfect to me in every respect. Only later I found out that she was flighty and irresponsible. Clearly she was not the one I was looking for. Then recently I met a woman in Montreal who was intelligent and beautiful, generous and warm, she had a great sense of humor and dedicated herself to others. I said to myself, this indeed is the perfect woman. This is the woman that I should marry.” “Well,” said the friend, “Why didn’t you marry her?” The other man fingered his glass and replied in a quiet voice, “Because she, was looking for the perfect man.”
To be an American is to be a consumer. Dangerous things begin to happen when we allow consumerism to influence our relationships: the way that we relate to others, the way that we relate to God. You cannot choose a wife in the way you would shop for a new car. You cannot analyze your relationship to God in the way that you would analyze an investment on the stock market. For all the differences in our culture of race, religion, education, economic status, Americans are united in the fact that they are consumers. We do not all have the same amount of money to spend, but it is our money and spending it gives us power. Whether we spend it at Walmart or Nordstroms, when we are consumers, we are in control. The customer is always right. Clearly the primary mode of recreation in the United States is shopping. When we are depressed we shop. When we are happy we spend. When we are bored we buy. Shop ‘til you drop! It’s the American way.
Now the point of this homily is not to attack consumerism. Consumerism is a part of our culture whether we like it or not. But my point is to warn you that it is dangerous to allow consumerism to influence and to warp our relationships. Because we as American are so fundamentally consumers, we can begin to approach our relationships as a kind of commerce. Taking that step is asking for trouble. Therefore, I want to name three expectations of consumers and illustrate how none of these are helpful in directing our relationship to God or our relationships to others.
Consumers expect that life is going to be fair, beneficial and free. Consumers expect that life is going to be fair. We are always looking for a fair price for what we buy. We would love to find a bargain, but no one wants to be cheated. By and large we are pleased with the price that we pay for the things that we buy. Otherwise we would not buy them. Yet, if something is defective, we want our money back. We want to be compensated, otherwise it would not be fair. Now this kind of commercial fairness should not be an expectation for living. The truth is that life is often unfair. Is it fair to be born with a handicap? Is it fair that our wife is dying of cancer? Is it fair that innocent people die by violence every day? Now none of these evils should be dismissed or tolerated. But clearly the commercial view of fairness is inadequate to deal with the complexities and the mysteries of life.
Consumers expect life to be beneficial. We only buy things because we think they will be good for us. If we don’t like it, we don’t buy it. The question which drives the consumer is “What benefit will be in this for me? How will my life be better with this new house, with this new sweater?” The consumer needs to know, “What will I get out of this purchase?” Now transferring the idea of commercial benefit into relationships is not helpful. We do of course benefit from or relationships to God and others. But unlike the purchases that we make, relationships need to be mutual. Not only do we benefit, but others must benefit as well. Therefore, the commercial idea of benefit skews our approach to relationships. Once we start thinking, “What do I get out of being a Catholic? What do I get out of this friendship?” Then the mutuality in our relationships is obscured and a healthy approach to relating is undercut.
Consumers think that life should be free. Consumers expect to have the discretion of choosing one thing over another. We might be simply buying a napkin ring, but we expect to have the freedom to decide which napkin ring we will purchase. We expect to decide when we are tired of one napkin ring and want to buy a new one. When that commercial freedom is transposed into relationships, it can be harmful. Such freedom reduces the permanency that relationships require. If I don’t like this church, I’ll go to another. If this person is not meeting my needs, then the friendship is over.
Consumers value fairness, benefit, freedom. But these categories are inadequate to the realities of human relationships and our relationship to
God. We need wider categories, deeper categories. In today’s gospel Jesus shows us where to find them. By claiming that the poor are blessed and the wealthy are to be pitied, he lifts up counter-cultural values. He is asking us to look at those parts of life that are not esteemed by our culture and to recognize in them a necessary part of living. He is asking us to widen our categories and values. Instead of being preoccupied with what is fair, we need to develop within ourselves a sense of acceptance, of humbly making our peace with those things in life that we do not understand or we cannot control. Instead of worrying only about our own benefit, we need to make room in our life for compassion and service, reaching out in love to others. Instead of treasuring simply our own freedom and discretion, we need to espouse commitment and loyalty, binding ourselves to others even when it is difficult, even when it demands sacrifice.
We as Americans are consumers, and consumerism extols fairness and benefit and freedom. But Jesus calls us to look in a countercultural direction. He calls us to open ourselves to acceptance, to service, to commitment. His gospel insists that it is only when we enlarge our attitudes in that direction that we can truly appreciate the breadth and mystery of life. It is only when we make room for countercultural values that we will have the clarity to see the Kingdom of God.
Joy to the Poor
February 14, 2010
Luke 6:17, 20-26
An understandable response to Jesus’ words in today’s gospel is: What is this guy talking about? What does he mean that the poor and the hungry are blest or that the rich are in trouble? What’s so good about poverty? What’s bad about wealth? Without a question, Jesus’ words in today’s gospel are difficult to understand and there are many interpretations on the part of people who try to make sense out of them. I am going to give you two: one that I think does not work and one that does.
Let’s start with the one that I feel does not work. Some people try to make sense out of Jesus’ words by spiritualizing the meaning of poverty or wealth. They say that Jesus is not talking about material poverty or material wealth but rather spiritual attitudes. In this way, poverty becomes a kind of simplicity or detachment from material things. The poor, therefore, can be blest because their lives are not dictated by their possessions. Now, if you understand Jesus’ words in this way, you can understand why he is saying that “being poor” is good. This is a very popular way of understanding Jesus’ message. So popular, in fact, that Matthew, in his gospel uses it. When Matthew reports Jesus’ words in the beatitudes, he says: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who hunger for righteousness.”
Matthew spiritualizes the meaning of poverty and hunger. But today’s gospel from Luke does not. Luke says, “Blessed are you poor, blessed are you who are hungry.” So if we are going to be authentic to Luke, we must understand Jesus’ words without spiritualizing them. How can we do this?
I would suggest that the key to understanding Jesus’ words is the phrase the Kingdom of God. The gospel says, “Blessed are you poor, because yours is the Kingdom of God.” Now what is the Kingdom of God? The Kingdom of God is God’s plan for the world, what God wants to happen in the world. Both the Old Testament and the New Testament agree that this notion of the Kingdom of God has two essential aspects. First the Kingdom of God is going to be a place of peace, of plenty and of joy, where good things are available. Second, those good things are to be shared by all. In God’s kingdom, it is not only some people who are going to be filled, joyful, and happy. Everyone will possess those gifts.
Jesus proclaims the kingdom. It is only in light of his proclamation of the kingdom that we can understand why he thinks that some things are blest and some things are not. Jesus says, “Blessed are you poor,” not because poverty is a blessing. He says, “Blessed are you poor” because God is on your side. God’s plan for the world is to eliminate poverty, to eliminate hunger and so you who are presently poor are blest because God is going to bring you out of that suffering and poverty into a place of plenty and joy. Moreover, all who share in God’s vision for the world will assist the poor in leaving their poverty and hunger behind.
Jesus says, “Woe to you who are rich,” not because wealth is bad but that people who have wealth can be deceived by it. People who have all that they need, who are filled, who are not hungry, who are joyful, might think that everything is the way that it should be. It might be that way for them but God’s vision says that it must be that way for everyone. You see, the temptation of wealth and satisfaction is that we can conclude that if we are satisfied, then all is as it should be. What God’s vision of the Kingdom tells those who are blest is this: You must use your blessings so that others might be blest. You cannot be satisfied until everyone is satisfied, that you are not truly fed until everyone is fed, that you are not totally where you should be until all people can participate in the necessities of life, until all people have access to food, shelter, education and health care. This is the vision that God sets out: good things for all those who are a part of humanity.
Now it’s easy to object to this vision, to say that it is unrealistic. We can object that there will never come a time when everyone can share in the bounty of the earth, when everyone will be fed and everyone will be safe. Those practical objections must be heard. But the scriptures are insistent: God’s plan is to bring the good things of the earth to everyone. Both the Old Testament and the New Testament are clear, what God wants to do in our world is to bring food and shelter and housing and education to everyone and we who believe in this God are called to participate in that message.
So where does this leave us? It leaves us with a choice. Are we going to believe and accept Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom or not? If we do accept it, then it means that whenever we are hungry, whenever we are persecuted, whenever we are lost or struggling, we are blest. We know that God is for us, that God intends for us to move out of our hunger and our pain into the fullness of the Kingdom. We can trust that God is with us and all those who believe in God’s plan are there to assist us. On the other hand if we are blest, if we are satisfied, then we are challenged. We are challenged to use the things that God has given us for the sake of others, to believe that we cannot be satisfied until all are satisfied.
That’s a vision that not everyone accepts. It’s a vision that we ourselves do not accept all the time, but it is clear that that vision is God’s vision. That is what the scriptures tell us. We who seek a relationship with God are called to believe that vision, to use the blessings that we have received to bring God’s goodness to others, to reduce poverty and want so that others might live in a satisfied and fulfilled way. We are called to believe this because it is the gospel; it is the call to build the Kingdom of God.
Blessings and Woes
February 17, 2019
Luke 6:17, 20-26
Fr. John Shea tells a story about a pastoral visit that changed his life. It was a rainy Monday morning and the next thing on his to-do list was to visit two parishioners who were in the hospital: Mrs. Gray and Mrs. Lux. On entering the first room, he said, “Good morning, Mrs. Gray.” An elderly woman looked up from the magazine she was reading. “Oh, Father,” she said. “You’re here. I thought you had forgotten me. I called you on Friday, but it’s been three days. I thought I was no longer important to our parish.” For a moment, Fr. Shea thought about informing Mrs. Gray that over the weekend he had a funeral, two weddings, three weekend Masses, and a parish retreat. But what he said was, “Mrs. Gray, I’m sorry it took me so long to get here, but I’m here now. What can I do for you?”
“Oh, Father,” she said, “I’m 82 years old and my life is falling apart. I’m losing my sight in one eye and I have a strong pain in my back. I have friends who are in their 90s and they still walk a mile a day. What have I done that is wrong? Do you think that God is punishing me?” “I don’t think that God is punishing you, Mrs. Gray. I think you are 82 years old. At that age our bodies begin to fail. This is the time to depend more on others. Do you have children?” “I have three children,” said Mrs. Gray. “But, where are they? You don’t see them here, do you? Oh, they stop in once in a while or call me on the phone but, Father, I am basically on my own. I think my children are just waiting for me to die and inherit my money.”
There were many things going through Fr. Shea’s mind, but what he said was, “Mrs. Gray, you asked me to visit you. Did you have a specific issue in mind?” “Yes, I do,” she said, “I know there is a new pastor at the parish, and I want to make sure he knows who I am, that he knows how much I have done for this parish. When they put the addition on the church, I gave a huge amount. Over the years, I have raised plenty of money for the school. I want him to know what I have done, so he doesn’t think that I am just anybody.” “Mrs. Gray,” said Fr. Shea, “we all know you are very special. I think we all appreciate how much you have done.” Good,” she said, “that is as it should be.” Fr. Shea gave her a blessing. As he turned to leave the room, Mrs. Gray called out, “Father, Father, pray for me. My life is going down the drain and I am alone.” He left the room with a bitter sigh.
He walked across the hall into Mrs. Lux’s room. The minute she saw him, she said, “Fr. Shea, how nice to see you. How thoughtful of you to come and visit me.” Fr. Shea noticed that her room was filled with flowers and handmade cards with big red hearts on them. She pointed to them with pride. “My children, my grandchildren, my great-grandchildren. Father, I have the most wonderful family.” “I’m sure you do,” he said. “Now, why are you here in the hospital?” “Cancer,” she said, “and it’s serious. The doctors say I have two months.” “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” said Fr. Shea. “Don’t feel sorry for me, Father. I’m 85 years old. I’ve lived a full life. I have many friends. I have a wonderful family. I have my faith. In a short while, I’m going to see Jesus.” Then as if she just remembered something, she looked at him and said, “But, Father, how are you? You look tired.” “It was a rough weekend,” he said. “I bet it was,” she said. “But Father, I want you to listen to me. This is important. You’re doing a great job. The people in the parish love you. I love you. Never forget that.” “Thanks,” he said. Then she said, “Well, I’ve taken enough of your time. You go along, but remember I pray for you every day, and when I get to heaven, I will pray for you still.”
As Fr. Shea left the hospital, he had what he would call a personal revelation. He realized that one day, he would be in one of those two rooms. He would either be like Mrs. Gray or like Mrs. Lux. He would either be a bitter old man who was afraid and complained about everything, or he would be a blessed old man, thankful for his life.
In today’s gospel, Jesus lists both blessings and woes. But Jesus does not place anyone in either category. We choose the category in which we belong by the way we live. Jesus gives us these blessings and woes to remind us that we can be rich, powerful, and important, but that does not necessarily mean that we will be happy. If we think only of ourselves and our influence, we can end up old and bitter, like Mrs. Gray. At the same time, we can be poor, experience terrible loss, and lose our health, and our lives need not be ruined. If we can be thankful and remain generous, we can be blessed like Mrs. Lux.
So which person do you want to be? In which room do you want to end up? Do you want to be cursed or do you want to be blessed? You decide. But remember, where you end up depends upon the choices you make today.