You probably saw the news reports from this past weekend about the harrowing experiences many people had on “Black Friday”, that shopping day to end all shopping days. There was the woman who pepper-sprayed fellow shoppers to keep them away from the items she wanted to buy; there was the elderly man who was accidentally beaten up by police who thought he had shop-lifted; there was more than one person who got stepped on and/or run over by zealous shoppers eager for a bargain; the list could go on. Incidents like these have characterized “Black Friday” before, but I don’t remember seeing this many reports of bad behavior in previous years. And, interestingly, apparently this year’s shopping extravaganza broke all previous sales records for this date.
At this point, you might now expect to hear the usual lament about the evils of materialism which have pervaded our society generally and our celebration of Christmas in particular. And, in a way, I suppose this is going to be the usual lament. But in a conversation with a colleague recently, it was noted that the material part of materialism really isn’t the problem. In other words, it’s not really about the stuff that we think we want and need so badly. It’s really about the “ism” part; that is, it’s really about us and the relationship we have with the stuff.
Recall this particular teaching of Jesus:
As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.” ’
He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ They were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’ – Mark 10:17-27
At first reading, it would perhaps be tempting to interpret this as a story about wealth and the dangers of wealth (or, in other words, the dangers of having a lot of stuff). But the story is really not about wealth, it’s about a man who has wealth. And the problem is not really his wealth; it’s really the relationship he has to his wealth. Jesus observes that it is difficult for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God because he knows that rich people have a tendency to get rather attached to their wealth, to their stuff. And it is precisely that attachment that is problematic. If this particular rich man had not been terribly attached to his stuff, and approached Jesus with the same question, Jesus would have given a different answer – one suited to whatever it was that was keeping this man from experiencing the world as the kingdom of God. But, as it happened, this rich man happened to be rather attached to his wealth, and it was that very attachment that was preventing him from experiencing the fullness of divine life.
The reaction of the disciples is our reaction: it is astonishing. Who can be saved? “For God all things are possible”, says Jesus. In other words, this problem of being attached to our stuff in such a way that we fail to experience life as God’s kingdom can be remedied through a therapeutic relationship with God, a relationship in which our center is shifted from our stuff to God. Jesus points out that we cannot do that on our own, but that God stands ready to help us – and to forgive us and love us when we find we are not completely successful in making this shift.
It is tempting to distance ourselves from this teaching of Jesus by telling ourselves that we are not rich, so it doesn’t really apply to us. Within our own social environment, we may not be terribly rich by comparison. Yet, compared to most human beings living today, almost everyone living in the United States is incredibly wealthy. If you earned just $12,000 a year, you would be among the wealthiest 17.6% of the world’s population; 5.4 billion people around the world would be less wealthy than you. And that rich man who approached Jesus? He was probably less wealthy than most people living in America today. So, yes, the story does apply to each of us.
There’s a lot of talk this time of year about putting “Christ” back in Christmas. Most people think this has something to do with saying “Merry Christmas” to everyone instead of “Happy Holidays.” I don’t think Jesus would care much about which option we choose for greeting people in December. If we really want to put Christ back in Christmas, we can work on changing our relationship to our stuff, and work at grounding ourselves more in God than in the stuff with which we are able to surround ourselves.