Wednesday, December 1, 2021

The curse of affluence. . .

I spent some time with a neighbor who visited the Biltmore for the first time.  The neighbor was struck by the great distance between the haves and the have nots epitomized by the palatial house, the extensive grounds, the numbers of servants needed just to keep things going, and how this all contrasted then and now with ordinary folk.  The gulf between rich and poor never seems to narrow.  Not even socialism and communism can erase the gap even though they may be able to narrow it a bit.  But at what cost?  Rather than raise the standard of living, the great temptation is to lower it for everyone -- except the scandalously rich.  They exist in every economic system.

Though we hear it often enough, we Americans do not believe that the rich.  We hasten to protest the label and insist that we are middle class.  In every way that wealth is counted, we are wealthy and perhaps somewhat entitled to that wealth.  We love to protest but underneath the figures rests a people who can afford the newest technology, the latest entertainment, lavish health care, and high expectations from life.  Among us routinely are people who live on the very extreme edge of wealth -- from the techno giants of the Gates to the financial gurus of the Buffet empires.  Add to that the Bezos and others who can afford what whole nations cannot.  It is dizzying.  But the effect of all of this wealth has not been happiness.  Ask the divorced Gates and Bezos or the Hollywood stars tarnished by sorrow, addition, pain, and depression.

If you can afford everything, then nothing has any real value.  That is the curse of affluence.  Where it was once the domain of the few, the numbers of those for whom money has no real value continues to grow.  Watch Million Dollar Listing -- a TV series devoted to the excesses of those for whom a price tag means little.  As Everett Dirksen put it:  “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking real money."  But how real?

My dad was fond of saying that unless you had a willing buyer ready to pay the price, nothing had any real value.  That is certainly true.  All those things I thought were so wonderful were left in the heap of my yard sale because nobody else valued them.  But the other side of this is also true. If you can afford everything, nothing has a price tag worth your notice and so it does not have any real value either.  That is the burden sin has put upon us.  We seem inclined only to over value everything or to give nothing any real value.  If there were any lasting good to come of COVID, it might be that we are beginning to crack this nut.  I am not sure that this is true, but I can hope.

Throughout the Gospels the disciples are enamored by wealth and convinced that the wealthy can do anything and everything.  Jesus, on the other hand, cautions them against this invincibility.  Like the proverbial eye of the needle and camel, Jesus warns against the presumption of wealth.  Like the story of the rich man with full barns who dies, Jesus raises the specter of being so full of things that you are empty of life itself.  Like the story of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus insists that there will be no second chance or momentary relief of a drop of water.  We live with our choices and sometimes we die because of them.   Yet Jesus is not simply a prophet of warning but the herald of hope.  For those who delight in the riches God has given will not be found poor in death.  That is the promise of faith.  It looks and sees what the things of this world can and cannot do and what the gift of God has done and does.

The if onlys of this life can be the worst prison of all -- living on hold while waiting for the cup to fill while refusing to rejoice in what God puts in that cup!  Consider the lilies.  They neither toil nor reap and yet who is arrayed in greater glory than these flowers here today and gone tomorrow?  Who indeed!  Christian do not forget that part of your calling and vocation is to manifest to the world the contentment that proceeds from possessing the one thing needful, the pearl of great price, the treasure hidden in a field, and that which moth and rust cannot destroy.  Once we get this right, everything else does seem to find its proper place.  Get this wrong and nothing else is right.

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