“If thou take away from the midst of thee the yoke, the putting forth of the finger, and speaking vanity; and if thou draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall thy light rise in obscurity, and thy darkness be as the noonday.” Isaiah 58:9b-10
Materialism has been at the forefront of my mind recently, and it seemed only appropriate for me to reflect on it when the reading in the Lectionary was the one above. Materialism has been showing its face to me in so many different ways lately, and I noticed that when I look into it, I see both the face of a menacing, demonic gargoyle and an attractive, well-crafted idol.
For pretty much as long as there has been a Judeo-Christian culture, there has been materialism. It’s been something that comes up in so many writings, from Exodus and the Ten Commandments, all the way through Jesus’ teachings. In fact, it is such a common issue, yet, judging from the number of treatments of the issue, it has not gone away.
In secular society, materialism is brought to the fore, with advertisements, product placements, jobs, and so many other aspects of our lives being governed by it. Even our relationships with one another are dominated by materialism: what’s the shiniest gift to give to my crush; what’s the best restaurant to take my family to; how can I impress my friends this time? However, even when we walk into our churches, we find the same problem. We have churches closing their doors to the communities of the poor, the sick, and the needy surrounding them. We have committees voting to buy the “newest trends in evangelism” while refusing to serve the person begging at their door. We have church staff members who have paychecks so much larger than the incomes of congregations combined, making me wonder if there is even enough there to support a community in need.
In addition to the tangible manifestations of materialism, we also have an ideological issue in our churches as well. At the surface, we have people preaching a “prosperity gospel,” where all of God’s blessings are material blessings. Going deeper, we will even ignore what the Bible tells us about materialism. We shy away when Jesus says to get rid of all of our belongings to follow him. We try to reinterpret what Isaiah means when he says if we draw out our souls to the hungry and the afflicted then we will become light. We downright ignore the laws of Moses regarding the harvest, where leaving a bit of our crops for the less fortunate and travelers was mandatory, not just a thing to do if we happen to have a large enough plot of land to sustain a miniscule community garden next to our towering, gothic building. We have tolerated greed and materialism so long that we grow uncomfortable looking at what life would be without it. Going further into this notion of institutionalized materialism in the Church, we have people who start to look at congregations as small businesses. Rather than consider what it means to reach people who need to hear the Gospel, we look at the specific number of people in pews as figures in graphs. We turn down programs that are for spiritual enrichment in favor of events that serve solely to bring income into the church.
Now, what happens when we look at the world through the lens of materialism? Our place in society becomes a competition. One day we are at the bottom; the next day we are above a few other people; and then a few days later, we are back down again. When we are at the top, we start looking at those who don’t have the same car, the same house, the same job, the same skill, the same talent with contempt and/or shame. We point fingers at them. We fabricate stories about them. They no longer are human. Instead, they are creatures who have failed their duties to God. The artist working for non-profits is blind and silly, unlike our careers in the sciences, which is filled with the culmination of intellectualism and wisdom. They are reaping the wrath of an angry God, and we, at the top, with our precious belongings, are near angelic in our existence. This most certainly is not the life that we are called to as Christians. For, when we propagate this sort of society, we end up hurting ourselves as well. Rather than giving ourselves a community of compassion and love, we turn into a society of ridicule and competition, one where, once we fail, we can no longer exist as functional beings in the world. When we bow down to this idol, when we bring our souls, our talents, our time to its altar, we descend into the darkness. Our vision vanishes, and we are left with a devotion filled with greed and selfishness until we too are consumed by all the negativity, unable to fulfil the necessary offerings needed to continue this cycle.
Instead, we are called to follow Jesus, to show love to all of those around us. We are called to use our talents to glorify God, to show the world what the unconditional love of God is. We are called to bring the light into the world as it continues its flirts with darkness. We have to look around us and listen to the cries and groans from all of those around us, including our own souls. We have to realize our talents and how they fit into the Kingdom of God. We have to take our treasure and use it to bring others closer to God rather than distance ourselves from God. We have to heal the world around us from all of its wounds.
This Lent calls us to action. Let us follow Jesus; no turning back.