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Materialism

 

Joshua 7:19-26                           Ephesians 5:1-5;15-20                                 Mark 12:28-37

 

I: — Materialism is blamed for everything that’s wrong with our society. Are children greedy and ill-behaved? It’s because of materialism. Are domestic tensions unravelling marriages? It’s because of materialism. Can you think of anything else that’s out of order? Blame materialism.

You must have noticed that all of us are quick to say that other people are infected with the spirit of materialism. As soon as our neighbour drives a new car or wears a new suit we announce that he’s plainly been bitten with the “bug” of materialism. It’s assumed, of course, that we are impervious to the ailment ourselves. It’s the rich woman from the Rosedale mansion, we note angrily, who denounces female factory employees asking for just a few more cents in their scanty pay-packet. It’s the television preacher with his carefully coiffed hair, we relish pointing out, railing against “Godless materialism” – even as his diamond tie pin sparkles and the income tax investigator sniffs and snoops. Everyone has the disease except us, we insist. After all, we have a perspective on materialism lacking in those who’ve already been seduced.

What is materialism, anyway? Is it as bad as it’s made out to be? Does it underlie all that’s wrong with us individually and collectively?

 

II: — William Temple, former Archbishop of Canterbury and a profound thinker, used to say over and over, “Christianity is the most materialistic religion in the world.” He was right. Christians believe more about matter, believe more positively about matter, and do more with matter than do the devotees of any other religious system.

[1] First of all, Christians acknowledge that God made the world of matter, the world of things. “All things bright and beautiful…The Lord God made them all” the children’s hymn declares. Since God made them, and since God is good, then all that God has made is good as well. We are to receive all that God has made with thanksgiving. We are to enjoy it all for as long as we have breath. It’s never God-honouring to disparage or disdain or declare to be evil what God has brought forth and declares to be good.

Not only are material things good; they are essential. While it’s true that we don’t live by bread alone, it’s equally true that without bread we don’t live at all. What’s more, material goods are essential not only to physical survival; material goods are essential to human survival. While it’s true we don’t live by our possessions, the person who is without possessions, the person who has nothing she can call her own; this person has been stripped of human dignity. To have nothing material, nothing whatever, isn’t merely to be materially destitute; it’s also to be psychologically deprived, psychologically warped. Quite frankly, when I get up in the morning I want to wear my own clothes. I don’t want to have to ask permission to wear someone else’s clothes. You want to sleep in your own bed. You don’t want to have to ask if there’s room in my bed for you. A modicum of material possessions is essential to human dignity. God has ordained this. However grand and lofty and mentally superior humans are compared to other life-forms, we humans remain inescapably bodily. Because of our inescapable bodiliness and its materiality, materiality is essential to our mental well-being. Depriving people of all material possessions neither enhances them humanly nor finds them mentally healthy.

[2] Christianity is unusually materialistic in another sense as well. Think of Christ Jesus our Lord. He is the eternal Word of God made flesh. By incarnating himself in Jesus of Nazareth God has conferred unspeakable worth on human flesh and therefore on everything that sustains it. If human flesh is important to God, then so is food for the body; so is clothing for it; so is shelter for it. Because the eternal Word has become flesh, matter matters. Matter matters enormously.

Think of what the Incarnate one does. He reconciles the world to the Father by means of the cross. Note: by means of the cross, not by means of a speech; not by means of an idea; not by means of a philosophy; by means, rather, of a cross. We are reconciled to God by means of coarse wood and coursing blood.

[3] Christianity is materialistic in yet another sense. Think of Christian worship. We use material items in worship all the time: water, wine, bread, money. We mustn’t forget money. The Sunday offering isn’t a convenient way of collecting funds to keep the furnace functioning. The Sunday offering of money is as “spiritual” a part of worship as reading scripture or singing hymns or praying. Money and prayer are equally spiritual, Christians insist. (If we doubt this we need only recall that Jesus spent more time in his public ministry talking about money than he did talking about any other single item.)

[4] Christian esteem for matter reaches far, far back into our Hebrew roots. When a sheaf of wheat fell out of a farmer’s arms in the autumn harvest, he didn’t go back to pick it up. He had to leave it in the field for anyone who lacked wheat. The farmer had to leave a border of grain all the way around his field. The border left behind was for anyone at all who lacked grain.

In Israel an indentured servant had to be released in the seventh year. Yet the person just released would obviously have no goods with which to begin his new economic life. Therefore when the master released the indentured servant after seven years, the master had to pile the fellow high with goods in order to give the fellow’s new beginning in life an economic foundation that would permit him to thrive.

[5] Our Lord clinches the materiality of the Christian faith in his parable of the sheep and the goats. Sheep and goats, genuine disciples and phoney disciples, are distinguished by one issue: whether they have used their material privilege to support the hungry, the homeless, the sick.

William Temple was correct: Christianity is thoroughly materialistic – by God’s appointment.

 

III: — Then why is materialism blamed for all that’s bad? If matter is blessing, how does materialism come to be curse? Curse arises the moment we covet.   We modern folk regard coveting as a trifle, nothing at all at best, a mere social impoliteness at worst. Our Israelite foreparents, on the other hand, regarded it with horror. When the apostle Paul writes to the congregations in Ephesus and Colosse he mentions coveting in the same sentence where he mentions the most lurid, vulgar sexual degeneration. He’s not suggesting that coveters are crypto fornicators. (This would be ridiculous.) He’s saying something else. He’s aware that everyone in the Ephesian and Colossian churches admits sexual degeneration to be accursed. What sexual degeneration and coveting have in common is this: both are accursed, because both are deadly.

Coveting, he knows, induces chronic discontent in people. Chronic discontent is pain of a peculiar sort, pain that gnaws and torments. Frequently I speak with couples who want a bigger house. A bigger house will have a larger dining room or living room. To be sure, the bigger house is going to plunge them another $150,000 in debt at x% per year. “How many times per year do you entertain so many people that you need this bigger room?” I ask as gently as I can. “Oh, once or twice per year.” And it’s going to cost $150,000 at x%, not to mention additional headaches? Then I learn that a close friend already has a bigger house. Wife complains about the smaller house. Husband is now shamed for not making more money, even though wife tells him (unconvincingly) she’s not blaming him. Husband mutters that he’s doing his best and suggests that if wife wants bigger house perhaps she should consider doing something about it herself. Chronic discontent has now mushroomed; it’s spread from discontent with their accommodation to discontent with each other – and this is far, far worse; deadly, in fact.

In the book of Joshua we are told that Achan covets the silver and gold belonging to the conquered enemy. Israelites are forbidden to plunder, since war is hideous at any time and Israel is not to profit from such hideousness. Achan ignores all this and takes the silver and gold he covets. Joshua , Israel ’s leader, learns what’s happened and confronts Achan: “What have you done?” “When I saw the silver and gold”, Achan replies laconically, “I coveted them.” Whereupon Achan is put to death. Just for coveting? Even after he has confessed it? Israel of old is aware that covetousness is contagious. As the contagion spreads the entire community is infected. As the infection rampages, everyone becomes hostile to everyone else because everyone envies everyone else. The entire community is endangered. Achan’s offence is vastly more serious than it appears.

Before we write off the incident as barbaric and the explanation for it as unconvincing, we should ask ourselves whether this isn’t how we regard pornography. We all admit that pornography induces what’s better not induced at all. We agree that pornography debases people made in God’s image; pornography denies the dignity of those he deems the apple of his eye; pornography dehumanizes humans whose humanness is always at risk in our world. In a word, pornography disrupts a community and endangers it. And, as we have recently come to know, pornography is more addictive than cocaine. Maybe, then, just maybe, Paul was smarter than we think when he mentions porneia and pleonexia, luridness and coveting, in the same sentence; and mentions them in the same sentence on more than one occasion. When Paul comes to state his qualifications as Christian leader he lists all the things we’d expect him to list: he’s received a commission from the hand of the crucified, etc., etc. Finally he gathers up his qualifications as Christian leader in one statement: “And I have coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel.” (Acts 20:33 )

Not only does covetousness induce chronic discontent; it induces chronic anxiety. I’ve noticed that people who lack life’s necessities are anxious. Of course they are. Who wouldn’t be anxious if she couldn’t feed her children? As people come to possess life’s necessities their anxiety decreases. As they possess life’s necessities plus a margin, a safety margin that can cover unforeseen setback and lend a little comfort, they are least anxious. As people begin to possess more, however, and more again, their anxiety starts climbing again. As they gain much more they are much more anxious. The poor are anxious on account of what they lack. The affluent are anxious on account of what they might lose. As people become still more affluent they are soon worried sick: worried about inflation, about taxes, about crises in international banking, about bad investments, about “creeping socialism”, whatever that is and however it’s thought to threaten.

Not only does chronic covetousness induce chronic discontent and chronic anxiety; it also induces chronic nastiness. The apostle James minces no words. “You desire and do not have”, he thunders, “and so you kill. You covet and cannot obtain, and so you wage war.” It’s no exaggeration. “Kill”? How many friendships have we seen disappear only to be replaced by contempt and ridicule just because someone’s material fortunes rose and someone else’s covetousness spilled over into nastiness?

The blessing wherewith God blesses us in his material provision becomes a curse the moment we begin to covet. You see, the gospel announces that matter matters. Coveters announce (regardless of what they say) that matter alone matters. The difference is huge. Since matter matters, the God who gave it is to be thanked. If matter alone matters, however, the God who gave it is to be dismissed. To dismiss the one who is our maker, our saviour, our guide, our sustainer; what is this but to live accursed?

 

IV: — If we have perverted blessing into curse, how is blessing recovered?

[1] First we have to remember who we are. Who we are is governed by whose we are. We belong to Jesus Christ. He is the one, scripture tells us repeatedly, through whom and for whom everything has been made. We belong to him. We live in his company. In his company we come to know why matter is good, how it is good, and how readily it’s perverted.

In the company of Jesus Christ we have also found a contentment that only his intimates know yet which they certainly know. Cherishing our contentment in him, we don’t have a nameless emptiness that we foolishly think to be assuaged by costlier things. We know that things will no more satisfy spiritual hunger than sawdust will satisfy bodily hunger. Knowing whose we are, we know who we are: we are those whose resistance the master’s invitation has melted as he renews every day his invitation to us – “Come to me…and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matt. 11:28-29)

[2] In the second place we are convinced that since matter matters, things can be an effective vehicle of God’s truth and God’s compassion and God’s persistent caring for all whom he has made. G.K. Chesterton, a Roman Catholic, was asked if he disagreed with The Salvation Army’s methods. “Disagree?” Chesterton replied, “A brass band is a purely spiritual thing.” So is drinkable water. So is farm fertilizer. So are school textbooks.

I spoke with a missionary surgeon who left what was then Zaire and returned home after three years’ service. He couldn’t abide the crude, make-shift medical practices he was forced to adopt on account of the lack of supplies. (For instance, there was no blood bank. When he was performing surgery that entailed no little loss of blood, he had to control bleeding by inducing shock. Shock is hard to control. Sometimes too much shock was accidentally induced and the patient died. Any North American MD who induced shock to control bleeding would lose his licence immediately.) In addition he was given a few thousand dollars to purchase medicine for many thousands of people. It averaged out to 35 cents per person. What was he supposed to do with that? Penicillin is a purely spiritual thing.

The little boy who gave his sardines and crackers to Jesus did something seemingly useless. For one, once he’d given his minuscule lunch away he wasn’t going to eat himself. As for the 5,000 around him, they were never going to eat in any case. And yet – at the end of the day, thanks to the boy’s gift, he had enough to eat, and so did everyone else.

One of my friends is a physician, an internist at Sunnybrook Hospital . He sees many people in intense pain. He also sees many drug-addicted people. He tells me that people who are suffering terribly can be given morphine, heroin even, as a pain-killer. They won’t be addicted. But a comfortable person, in no pain, who is given morphine or heroin, is addicted instantly.

Matter matters. God has given it to us as blessing. Matter satisfies material need: water, food, air. Matter is the occasion whereby Jesus Christ satisfies spiritual need: wooden cross, baked bread, pressed grape wine, fleshly handshake. Materialism, on the other hand, “matter alone matters” – materialism is a form of addiction. The sign that we’re free from such addiction is that we’re free to share our material goods: house, meals, money – only then to find that the little we share is hugely multiplied in the bizarre arithmetic unique to Christ’s kingdom.

 

Addiction? In the course of thirty-five years’ ministry I’ve encountered many drug addicts. They scare me half to death.

                                                                                                  Victor Shepherd   

  April 2005