Some friends of mine have two young daughters. There is a difference of several years in the girls’ ages, but they have similar tastes. They will wear only clothing that is pink and play only with toys that are pink.
The online shopping behemoth that I patronize makes shopping for the girls an easy task. I can filter search results by age, size, and most importantly, color. This makes shopping for birthday and Christmas gifts easy, but it also confuses the algorithm that the online shopping behemoth uses to send me targeted advertising. The online retailer’s cloud farm seems to think that I’m a thirty-something soccer dad.
There are a great many benefits to living in a society that is so consumer oriented. It is certainly an easy task to find just the right item for oneself or someone else. There are also some potential detriments that can result from being a savvy consumer. The worst possible effect of living in a consumer culture happens regularly. All too often, we treat one another, and even God, as consumer commodities.
You might recall that the Gospel reading last Sunday related something like a parable in which Jesus said that it is better to lose a hand, foot, or eye than to lose one’s soul. In that prophetic pronouncement, the body parts represented commonly used metaphors for human activities and desires. In ancient Hebrew culture, hands and feet were used as metaphorical references to purposeful activity such as physical labor or commercial enterprise. In a similar manner, eyes were used as a metaphorical reference to the cognitive actions of reasoning, deciding, and choosing.
Today, we have another such metaphor in the first reading. The book of Genesis says that God removed a rib from the first man and fashioned the rib into a woman. In this context, the rib is a metaphorical reference to the equality of men and women. The woman was not made from part of the man’s head, as this would have symbolized her superiority to the man. Nor was she made from part of the man’s foot, as this would have symbolized her inferiority. Rather, she was made from the man’s side, an equal.
At this juncture, I must point out that equality in ancient Hebrew culture did not mean what it means for us today. Ancient Hebrew culture, continuing into Jesus’ lifetime, was a bifurcated society. Men lived and acted in the public sphere while women lived and acted in the private realm. Men were responsible for a family’s public relationships; women were responsible for a family’s internal relationships. From this point of view, men and women were equals; families could not survive in the absence of both a responsible patriarch and a responsible matriarch.
This ancient Hebrew notion of equality is quite different from equality in the United States today. Today, in our culture, equality is the notion we use as a means to live in denial about our fear of diversity. In American culture, we are not as attached to equality as we are to uniformity. As long as everyone acts the same way and follows the same values system, we are comfortable. When there is disagreement about values, however, our society devolves into chaos and violence. If think this judgment is too harsh, spend a few nights watching the broadcast news from your local television stations. The protests, public shootings, and character assassinations on social media are not the result of a commitment to treating all people with equanimity.
It would be possible to have true equality in our society, but first we would have to stop treating one another like consumer commodities. Unfortunately, we apply to one another the same criteria that we apply to the products we buy in stores. Persons who are judged defective, impractical, inconvenient, or dissatisfactory are discarded or subjected to public ridicule. Even religion is treated like a consumer product. God is too often depicted as existing in order to supply worshippers with affirmation, superiority, wealth, or success.
The Scriptures have something to say about consumerism and consumer religion. The metaphor of the man’s rib in Genesis is a statement about the equality of men and women. This equality is not a statement that men and women are identical. Rather, it is an acknowledgment that men and women need one another. Ancient Hebrew society would have unraveled quickly if men and women had not acted responsibly with regard to their various roles in their families. This same truth applies to our society. Western culture faces more than a little fraying around the edges. At least on some days, it looks like we’re are moving willingly toward nationalism and all its associated social ills.
The Scriptures say that people need one another, not because of the material benefits that can be produced by individuals but because of the intangible (interpersonal, spiritual), benefits that result from being in healthy relationships with others. This concept is entirely foreign to consumer culture; it requires us to see one another as equals rather than as objects or competitors.
Dealing with the real diversity of the human population is never going to be as easy or satisfying as finding a bargain, negotiating a good deal, or getting something for nothing. It will, however, make us more human.
As we live in a culture that tells us to treat everything and everyone as a commodity, we should expect to struggle a bit with the practice of treating other people as equals. The Scriptures do offer practical guidance to help us be fully human. When you find yourself confused or conflicted about how to deal with another individual, particularly a difficult one, apply one simple rule to the relationship: relate to other people the way you want them to relate to you. (Mt. 7:12)