A friend of mine suffers under great burdens. For example, one of his sons made an ashtray stand for him to use on the back porch. Unfortunately, my friend put an ashtray on the stand while the paint on the stand was still slightly wet; the result was that the ashtray glued itself to the stand. My friend now complains bitterly that he can’t empty the ashtray; he has to vacuum it with a hand-held vacuum cleaner. Eager to be Job’s comforter, I pointed out that this was a rich person’s problem.
In today’s Gospel reading, the author of Luke’s Gospel warns about rich people’s problems. In the Gospel, Jesus says, “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life.” (Lk. 21:34) At the time the Gospels were written, approximately 95% of the world’s population lived a subsistence lifestyle; the fortunate ones were able to earn enough in a day to feed their family for that day. A very small percentage of people were wealthy enough to afford carousing and drunkenness. The Gospel’s warning was directed at the wealthy few. The danger of wealth is a recurring theme in Luke’s Gospel; we’ll see similar warnings throughout this new liturgical year.
While the majority of the population in the ancient world was too poor to engage in overindulgence, I’m sure that they had their own forms of distraction and diversion. One doesn’t need money to worry about the things that cannot be changed, to blame others for one’s own problems, or to grow bitter about the injustice in the world. For this reason, each of us should heed the Gospel’s warning.
It might well be the case that you do not engage in drunkenness and carousing; this is not sufficient reason to ignore the Gospel. Luke adds “the anxieties of daily life” to his list of detrimental choices. The warning is directed to everyone, and the warning is simple: don’t allow worry and fear to rule your life. Today, the warning is as timely as ever.
Long, long ago in a place far, far away there was a thing called “news reporting.” I don’t know when it happened, but news reporting ceased to exist at some point in the distant past. There are still broadcast shows that call themselves news reports, but they no longer report the news; those shows exist only to complain and to encourage their viewers to complain.
You might well ask, “What’s wrong with complaining?” I would be quick to admit that there’s nothing wrong with complaining; I do a great deal of it. If you ever encounter me when I have a cold or the flu, you will hear me whine like a baby. Complaining about things that cannot be changed can be a harmless way to spend time, but I think our culture’s addiction to complaining has become toxic.
Most people will agree with my assessment above, but only with regard to the complaining done by people who hold views opposed to their own. Please be clear about what I’m saying: I think everyone’s complaining, including mine, has become a poison in the soul of our society.
If you want to disagree with me, you are welcome to do so; you are the only person competent to live your life. Before you dismiss my assessment of complaining, however, I ask you to try the following thought experiment. Remember the most recent time you were in the company of someone who really annoyed you by complaining about something or someone you value. For most people, this will be the most recent time that someone espoused political opinions that differ from your own. Remember all the feelings you had as that person droned on about their completely insane viewpoints. Remember how their voice sounded like fingernails on a chalkboard. Remember how you could feel your blood pressure spike into dangerous territory.
Are those memories fresh in your mind? Now, take a moment to reflect on the fact that, when you express your most deeply held opinions, you sound just like that person whom you grew to loathe because of their irrationality. This is precisely the situation that Luke’s Gospel addressed when it warned about the dangers of becoming so distracted by worries and fears that we fail to perceive Jesus’ presence in our lives.
The Gospel isn’t suggesting that there is nothing worth worrying about; nor is it suggesting that we merely swallow our pride and bear with other people’s inappropriate behavior. Rather, what the Gospel is saying is that there is something much worse than not being affirmed and treasured by every person on the planet. The worst possible thing that could happen is that we create a world where no one can stand any other person’s company. Sadly, I think we’ve already accomplished that. Consequently, I’d like to invite you to step back from the edge of the precipice.
The next time worry or fear threaten to monopolize your thoughts, ask yourself if that is truly how you want to live. The next time you have to listen to someone who offends you, ask yourself what sort of compassion you would like to receive if the situation was reversed. The next time something or someone drives you to utter distraction, ask yourself if it’s really worth losing sight of God’s love over this issue.
Today’s Gospel reading concludes its list of warnings by saying, “Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man.” Being vigilant means imitating Jesus at all times, in all situations, and with all people. Every person alive today is rich enough to complain about the normal limitations imposed by life; there is great danger inherent in this sort of wealth. We are capable of making ourselves so bitter and unforgiving that we turn our backs on God and, thereby, make ourselves the poorest of the poor. If we allow ourselves to be ruled by our baser instincts, we will lose sight entirely of the fact that our “redemption is at hand.” (Lk. 21:28)
Consequently, I invite you to take a step back from the worries and tribulations of life so that you are always ready to stand before the Son of Man who brings redemption.