When I read about the life of Jesus in the Bible I am always struck by the stories that present him as the ultimate rebel against absurd rules, biases against certain people, and the love of money. More than once he crossed the religious leaders of his time when they insisted that it was wrong to perform a life saving miracle on the Sabbath or to fraternize with certain groups of people. One of the few times that he demonstrated unedited anger was when he overturned the tables of the money changers in the Temple. He definitely gave us very clear guidance about how we should conduct ourselves, but for some reason we seem to have a difficult time accepting his ideas. Of course we have to take care of ourselves and our families, which means that we need a means of earning money, the capital for obtaining our most basic needs, but if we really think about it how much of the green stuff do we really need?
I don’t sit around longing for the good old days because I like the idea of progress. Nevertheless, I remember a time when people seemed to lead much simpler lives. Homes were smaller even though there were usually more children in them. Families were lucky to have one car, one television, one bathroom. Air conditioning was a luxury and spending time outside with neighbors was a thing. A vacation meant driving to a nearby town for a few days, eating peanut butter sandwiches along the way. Teens worked all summer long and sometimes after school to help the family or to save money for college. Food was basic and consumed around a table in a nightly gathering. Gifts were from the heart, little gestures of love.
Of course there were problems that we seemed to ignore as long as our own needs were met. We drove past the segregated areas of town without thinking that much about what it must have been like for the people subjected to the demeaning behaviors and neglect from the rest of society. We paid little attention to those who went bankrupt paying for medical care and we rarely gave a second thought to children who went hungry. We just did not talk about such things. We acted as though such things did not exist as long as they did not directly impact us.
Times have really changed since I was a child. We thought we had come to grips with the underlying racism when the Congress passed legislation meant to guarantee civil and voting rights. We made sure that both the elderly and the very poor had access to doctors with Medicare and Medicaid. We integrated our neighborhoods and our schools while the wheels of industry provided us with seemingly better and better lifestyles. Our homes grew bigger and we filled them with possessions that would have stunned our grandparents. We worked harder and for more hours of the day to stay apace with those competing with us for all of the goodies. We ate together as a family less and less often. We closed our doors and and windows and diminished our contact with our neighbors. We had more cars than space to store them in our garages. Our vacations were elaborate and we took regularly. We counted our money more often than we considered our blessings or the needs of those that we began to understand less and less, sometimes even being brash enough to believe that they must be lazy if they were unable to make it in our wonderful world.
I’m as guilty of these trends as anyone. I rocked along oblivious to the waste, the destruction of our planet, the neglect of the less fortunate. I was elated to enjoy luxuries that were unimaginable in my youth. Instead of really appreciating the money that I had, I wanted more and more just to be certain that I would be comfortable for all of my life. I took so much for granted even as my grandchildren warned me that so the glut of consumption was slowly killing our planet. I witnessed the poverty and of some my students as they earnestly explained to me how hard their parents were working just to stay afloat. I did not understand how the undercurrent of racism still existed even though some of my colleagues at work assured me that it was alive and well. Because my own life was good I missed all of the cues of the suffering that was growing around me.
Then came the reckoning for me. Because of the pandemic the pace of my life slowed down to a crawl. I had more time to open my eyes to what was really happening to people far away from my own lifestyle. I saw that my habits had become destructive to the planet. I realized that as a nation we had become more selfish and less concerned with those who struggle to enjoy the same level of justice and wealth that I take for granted. I was stunned by what I finally saw even though people had attempted to open my eyes to these things for decades. Money and things became less and less important to me. People and freedom and integrity seemed more valuable. I felt humbled.
There is certainly nothing wrong with working hard and becoming successful. Having a nice home is not a sign of selfishness. We can take trips and enjoy life without wearing hair shirts and beating ourselves. but it’s important that we never lose sight of the reality that we owe it to our fellow humans and our planet to make sensible sacrifices to insure that we are not wasting while others are starving for basic needs or simple respect. We have to constantly consider just how much we really need and how much we should share. The pursuit of money and goods cannot not be our ultimate goal. Nor should we be so busy increasing our bounty that we lose sight of problems that we should be addressing.
I may be a bit late in realizing these basic truths but I have an opportunity to begin anew. I want to live the rest of my life with others in mind. I want to be willing to sacrifice, speak up and vote in ways that honor and save lives as well as the earth around me. I am more than ready to sacrifice to follow those lessons that Jesus taught us. One does not have to be religious to understand how important they are. He gave us the guidebook. Now it’s time to actually follow it and continually ask ourselves, “How much do I really need?”