Friday, October 12, 2012

Twenty-Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Istanbul, Turkey, like so many of the world’s largest cities, is rife with slums and poverty. Yet, along the shores of the Bosporus, dividing Asia from Europe, may be found the waterside homes of Istanbul’s rich and famous. One such resident was interviewed once for an article in National Geographic. This person and her late husband were art collectors, and she was most proud of the treasures they had amassed over the years- silver, porcelains, and especially paintings. Their collection, she boasted, included a Tintiretto, a small Rembrandt, and two Titians. But in spite of her wealth, this woman was far from happy. "Too many things," she sighed. "They require much care. I am their slave."

I imagine that many people in the United States- both the rich and the not so rich- understand exactly where she’s coming from. Having spent so much time and energy in the pursuit of the material and the worldly, they find themselves jaded and exhausted- burdened with stuff or the desire for it, perhaps saddled with debt, and left with an emptiness inside that there must be something more to life than just this.

Of course, our culture breeds this sort of dead-end consumerism and materialism. It’s been argued that our modern economy has flourished not by satisfying consumers’ legitimate needs, but by creating the desire for products that we don’t need all. And there’s some truth to this. One letter to the editor of Newsweek magazine noted the irony of two articles that appeared on the same page. One article lamented the fact that one fifth of the children in Afghanistan were suffering from hunger and malnutrition, while the other article featured a posh Miami hotel at which patrons could order a $24 plate of steak tartare for their dogs.

You might recall that after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, we were often encouraged to spend our money on consumer goods and services so that the economy wouldn’t falter. At one level, I can appreciate this. But at another level, something about that just doesn’t seem quite right; to me, it sounds a little self-indulgent. I empathize with one economist who recalled the old American propaganda posters from World War II which urged citizens to sacrifice- "Waste Helps the Nazis," and things like that. He half-jokingly imagined a modern day version featuring Americans golfing and getting massages with the caption: "Self-denial Helps the Terrorists." Or as one businessman said to another in a New Yorker Magazine cartoon, "I figure if I don’t have that third martini, then the terrorists win."

The young man in today’s gospel, although a figure from the ancient past, could very easily be a modern-day American. He was interested in God and religion and he strived to live a clean, virtuous life. But money and possessions were his stumbling block, and his attachment to them prevented his from following Jesus as he should. Just like the wealthy woman from Istanbul, he had become their slave. "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle," Jesus lamented, "than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." We’re told that even the disciples were astonished by these words, and we struggle to accept them even today. As the famous English Catholic G. K. Chesterton once quipped, "Ever since Jesus first pronounced these words, engineers have been trying to build bigger and bigger needles, and scientists have tried to breed smaller and smaller camels."

Jesus did not say that material things are evil. God made everything in creation good and has given them to us for our use and enjoyment. And Jesus did not go so far as to say that it’s a sin to be rich. Yet experience has shown that riches can so easily give rise to greed, pride, and idolatry. They can restrict our freedom, blinding us to what is truly important in life. And this is where the sin lies.

Because they are God’s gifts, with money and possessions come responsibility. As Mother Teresa once said, "Richness is given by God and it’s our duty to divide it with those less favored." Yet the young man in the gospel was unwilling to share of his goods with the poor as Jesus requested, and he went away sad. His example should challenge us to evaluate our own stewardship of our material blessings. Do they absorb too much of our time, energy, and thoughts? Are we too attached to them? Are they a primary motivating force in our life? Do they define how we think of ourselves and how we think of others? Or do we receive them with gratitude and share them with generosity?

Mother Teresa recalls that once a Hindu gentleman was asked the question: "What is a Christian?" And, to use Mother Teresa’s words, he gave a very simple but a very strange answer. He said, "A Christian is giving." But on reflection, Mother Teresa came to understand that he was right. A Christian is giving, because God himself is giving. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. Being rich, he became poor for you and me. Indeed, he gave his very life for us. But that was not enough. He wanted to give us the chance to give to him, by continuing to be present amongst us in the faces of the poor. In other words, God calls us in love, to return to him in love, what he so lovingly gave to us in the first place.

As St. Ignatius Loyola once prayed, "All that I am and all that I possess, You have given me. I surrender it all to you to be disposed of according to your will."

(My book of daily meditations for Lent, to be published by Ave Maria Press in November, is available for pre-order: )

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