22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 31, 2014

One of the benefits of the glass partitions we installed in the church building is that now we have a Cry Room for the little ones. While the availability of a Cry Room is nice, I was concerned about the infants and toddlers who might hang out in there: the tile floor is a rather hard surface for little hands and feet.

Happily, we live in a consumer-oriented culture. There is an unbelievable selection of consumer commodities available, much of which can be obtained without ever leaving one’s home or office. I found, from an internet retailer, a Noah’s Ark themed rug made for little children. It’s been in the Cry Room for a few weeks. It looks really cool, and should provide the crawling and scooting age group with a softer surface than the tile floor.

I did notice, however, a few shortcomings in the rug. There is an alphabetical listing of animals around the perimeter of the rug. In keeping with the Noah’s Ark theme of the rug, its designer tried to come up with an animal for every letter of the alphabet. Things went well until the designer came to the letters “U” and “X.”

The designer chose “X-ray fish” for the letter “X.” “X-ray fish” is a nick-name for the Golden Pristella Tetra. There are at least two species of dinosaurs whose name begins with “X.” An actual name would have been preferable to a nickname. The designer really went off the rails, however, at the letter “U.” The rug depicts a Unicorn. That’s not a real animal; it’s mythological. Regardless of how one interprets the story of Noah’s Ark, a mythological animal would not have needed rescue from the Deluge. I would have chosen “Sea Urchin,” but that’s my personal prejudice as someone who majored in the Sciences in college.

Admittedly, these are minor quibbles when compared to the surpassing excellence of finding such a cool product, ordering it from my office computer and having it delivered to the door. There are a great many advantages to living in a consumer culture, but there are also some limitations. For the disciples of Jesus, the limitations of consumer culture must always be kept in mind.

In this Sunday’s Gospel Jesus said to his disciples, “How does a man profit who gains the world, but loses his life? What can a man give in exchange for his life? For the Son of Man will come in His Father’s glory, along with his angels, and he will recompense each person according to their actions.” (Matthew 16:26-27)

Jesus used language from commerce: words such as “profit,” “gain,” “loss” and “recompense.” This might deceive us into interpreting Jesus’ words as being about consumer commodities. Religion certainly lends itself to commercialization. Some people see church attendance as coming at a high price (one they’re loathe to pay). Others try to discount the cost by arriving late, leaving early or keeping busy with personal matters while they’re here. Some ration the amount of time they spend on church activities, and some are very concerned about what they can bring home from their church experience.

I would suggest, however, that Jesus’ use of words such as “profit,” “gain,” “loss” and “recompense” was intended to describe an interpersonal relationship rather than a business transaction. Jesus had a deep love for God and people, especially people who were marginalized by the mainstream of his society. He also had a casual disregard for material possessions; he seems to have owned none, and he called his closest friends to abandon theirs. His references to profit and loss must have meant something other than gaining or losing personal possessions.

The meaning of “profit” and “loss” in Jesus’ statement is given in the preceding line of the Gospel. Jesus said, “Anyone who wishes to be my disciple must abandon his own interests, lift up his cross and follow in my footsteps.” (Matthew 16:24) “Gaining life” and “being recompensed,” in this context, do not refer to commercial transactions. Rather, those statements refer to a lifelong relationship with God that leads to eternal happiness.

Unfortunately, our consumer culture inclines us to view everything, and everyone, as a product for our consumption. We treat people as commodities; we are tempted even to treat God as a commodity. An easy way to judge the legitimacy of this attitude is to ask oneself what it’s like to be treated as an object. Most of us have had the experience of being objectified. Most of us can think of times when we have been treated more like a thing than a person. It’s never a pleasant experience.

I make regular visits to a hospital near the parish campus. I feel a great deal of sympathy for the patients I meet. Their physical ailments are quite a burden to bear. I am most saddened, however, not by their physical sufferings but by the loss of dignity and freedom that necessarily accompanies a hospital stay. In the best hospitals a patient becomes little more than a collection of symptoms and diagnoses.

Treating another person as an object is grossly dehumanizing; it denies personhood, freedom and the basic dignity of the individual. Everyone finds this objectionable, except when one does it to another. It ought to be most objectionable when done to God, but that seems not to prevent us from turning Grace into a commodity and God into a distributor of consumer goods.

It’s a simple process for us to turn God’s Grace into a product for our consumption. It’s easy enough to turn the Gospel into a self-help program. God doesn’t object vociferously when we reduce God to being nothing more than a provider of personal enrichment experiences or material possessions or consumer commodities. It shouldn’t be necessary for us to be reminded of how objectionable these actions are, but it is. We live in a culture that tells us everything and everyone should be made to serve our personal desires; this is the antithesis of the Gospel message.

Jesus said, “Anyone who wishes to be my disciple must abandon his own interests, lift up his cross and follow in my footsteps.” (Matthew 16:24) If you came to church today to “get” Communion, or “get” Grace, or “get” a sense of personal satisfaction or “get” relief from your troubles, you might be deluding yourself. If you use religion as a means of self-improvement, you might be misusing God’s gifts. If you’re hoping to find self-fulfillment, or satisfaction for your many desires, you might be looking for too little.

St. Augustine wrote, “What we love indicates the sort of people we are.” (Sermo 96) Love of wealth or consumer goods indicates a life built on a foundation of perpetual decay. Love of personal gain indicates a soul looking for distraction from the experience of emptiness. Love of self-satisfaction indicates a life so limited that it prevents itself from finding what it needs most.

Jesus taught love of God and neighbor, the sort of love that is self-emptying. Self-emptying, self-sacrificing love is a sure path to the Cross. This sounds like a mortal sin to a consumer culture, but to faith, it sounds like the promise of eternal life. Our Faith prompts us to put aside our consumerism and self-concern in order to embrace the Cross. Our culture would prompt us to say, “Lord forbid that any such thing should ever happen!” (cf Matthew16:22) The Faith isn’t always the loudest voice in our environment, and the voice to which we attend matters a very great deal. One offers the endless pursuit of limited satisfaction; the other offers a life full of love (and sacrifice). Which recompense will you accept?