Eighteenth Sunday of the Year. Fr Lawrence Lew suggests that Jesus has the cure for a modern ailment.
Our global culture is marked by what has been called ‘selfish capitalism’, and our consumerist economy is fuelled by our willingness to believe that life is incomplete without yet more stuff. How often have we been enticed to believe that a new mobile phone, or package holiday, or some other amazing product, is just what we need to make our life more complete? All earth’s goods are indeed good, but the problem, as social psychologists note, is that increased consumption does not satisfy our deepest human need for love. Instead, materialism drives us to work harder while neglecting our vital personal relationships, and true human goods. And so, as Qoheleth says: ‘[Man’s] work is a vexation; even in the night his mind does not rest. This also is vanity’.
The feeling of discontent and restlessness that afflicts us because we have looked to consumerism as a path to happiness and self-worth has been called ‘affluenza’. Although the word is new, the situation affluenza describes is perennial. At its root is one of the ‘capital sins’ identified by the Christian tradition, namely, greed.
So, Jesus warns us to ‘beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions’. The Desert Fathers recognized that greed created false needs, thus leading to discontentment and restlessness, and modern advertisements rely on this weakness to tempt us to buy more. When we succumb, our hope for salvation from our current dis-ease is mistakenly placed in a lesser good. Hence Saint Paul called greed an ‘idolatry’ because no temporal good can ever satisfy our fundamental longing for God, for whom our hearts are made, and in whom we find our rest.
The current painful economic crisis has strikingly brought home to many the pitfalls of selfish capitalism, and served as a wake-up call, alerting some to the vicious cycle of affluenza. In the shake-up of recession and redundancy, many have been forced to re-evaluate their lives and their priorities, and to recall what blessings we do have in our friends, family, and in ourselves. So too, the preacher in Ecclesiastes delivers a wake-up call: ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity’! And Christ, in his sharply-worded parable, calls one who seeks a life of ease and to just ‘eat, drink [and] be merry’, a ‘fool’. Thus, this week’s readings call us to consider what we truly value, and urge us to be rid of affluenza.
Christ’s parable suggests a remedy for this malaise. We’re told that the rich man’s land ‘brought forth plentifully’. This bounty was not of his creation, although he (or his servants) laboured to cultivate the land. Rather, the fruitfulness of the land was a blessing from God, with whom Man collaborated. Ultimately, though, everything that we toil over, and all our successes, come from God, the giver of every good gift. So, material goods are given to us for a purpose. We are not meant to hoard them in barns as ‘my grain and my goods’. We are to share God’s bounty with other people, who are our beloved brothers and sisters. Thus we bless others with the blessings God has given us, and so our very lives become a blessing, a sacrifice of praise and thanks to God. So, the goods of this world are to be selflessly used well for the good of all, but selfishness and greed leads to their abuse such that creation itself is exploited.
Today’s readings, then, challenge us to examine whether we share our ‘inheritance’ with our brethren who are in need, for the poor, unlike those who are influenced by modern marketing, have genuine material needs.
But Christ does not simply bid us to share our goods. Rather, we are invited to give freely, not out of duty but motivated by love, just as in the divine economy Christ was given to humanity from the Father’s heart to meet our deepest need. As the Head of humanity, then, we might call Jesus the paradigmatic selfless Capitalist!
What could fuel such self-giving on our part? Our desire for true riches and lasting joy. For charity – love of others that entails a concern for their good – is the highest gift of God, and the only treasure that endures. Charity destroys the effects of greed and affluenza, and truly perfects us as humans by uniting us in Christ. Hence, the goods of this world are given to us so that we might use them well, so as to grow in charity, and the other virtues. So, as today’s Benedictus antiphon says: ‘If you desire to be truly rich, desire true riches’.