Dying of Consumption
Matthew 16.26 "Will a person gain anything if he wins the
whole world and loses his life?"
That the world is "dying of
consumption" is a clever slogan thought up by one of the environmental
groups struggling to warn us of what they think is likely disaster if we
continue to consume resources at the rate we do.
The slogan wouldn't have made much sense to the average
person in first-century Palestine. All but a tiny number of mega-rich then
would have been on what we today call "the breadline." That is, they would
have had to work extremely hard to survive. Even if the ordinary man and
his family achieved some security, they would nevertheless have been
constantly at risk from war and weather.
The wealthy of the West have a hard time imagining what
it's like for the great majority of the human race today. It seems to me,
having been brought up in Africa, that even the poorest in Britain (for
example) are wealthy by comparison with the poor on that continent.
I recall as a young man walking once with a friend
through the bush of Zimbabwe. Without warning we came across a single
grass hut, standing alone. In it was an elderly man. In one corner of the
hut was his bed. In the centre was a crude table made from tree branches.
There was nothing else.
As far as I could tell, he owned only the clothes on his
back - a ragged khaki shirt and a pair of shorts. I have no idea how he
fed himself. There was no sign of crops anywhere close by. Despite his
abject poverty he gave us a drink of sorghum beer while we chatted. It's
an image which has never left me.
Perhaps Jesus visited and talked to similar people as he
went from place-to-place. If so, he would have known that the average
peasant was squeezed hard by the authorities. A third or more of
everything they produced went to the Jewish rulers to fund their high
lifestyle and to pay the levies of the Roman Empire.
We in the West live in the richest society the world has
ever known. We consume eighty percent of the world's resources. And yet we
constantly strive for more, and more, and yet more. We have the
whole world, or nearly so.
Still, I ask myself, shouldn't we keep our feet on the ground? When
push comes to shove, which of us would willingly give up our comparative
riches? Any of the desperately poor of the world would leap at the chance
of becoming as rich as people in the West. In other words, they'd rather
die of excess consumption than of starvation.
So perhaps I need to change my focus a little. It might help to look
below the surface and ask why we tend to be so attracted by money, power,
position and possessions.
One answer is, I think, that through them we seek to reduce insecurity.
If I have more than I need for bare survival, then perhaps I'll be able to
get through hard times more easily.
To translate what Jesus is saying into today's terms, we could render
it as, "Will a person gain anything if he wins security and
loses his life?" We might go on to ask ourselves if there's really
such a thing as security in this life. I wonder.
And what about the "lose your life" part of what Jesus is saying?
It may be hard for us to fully understand how near death was to Jesus
and those around him. In the West today most people live seventy years,
and many twenty or more years beyond that. In contrast, life expectancy in
first-century Palestine was worse than most parts of the world today. The
average woman could expect at least half her children to die early. She
herself would be lucky to live beyond forty, and a man not much longer.
So I think Jesus was pointing out what everyone around him knew
full-well. Any struggle for absolute security carries within it seeds of
failure because death can come at any time and will inevitably
come sometime. "If you think you can win absolute security," says Jesus
here, "just remember that you will lose your life - perhaps soon
but without doubt later."
This is a call to get our priorities right. It's not that we shouldn't
get and keep what we need - including a substantial degree of security if
we can. Rather, it seems to me, those of us who seek to build on what
Jesus began so long ago are encouraged to live our lives differently in at
least two ways:
- We should not divide humanity into winners and losers, because we
all lose everything eventually. We each need to prevail in life
sufficiently to live well and reasonably securely. But he who went
before us chose to be a loser in order that others might be winners.
There can be no doubt that this is central to his way of life, which has
in turn become "The Way" for Christians throughout the ages.
- God's creation is bountiful. We are all invited to take from it the
riches we need to prosper and to fulfill our individual potentials. But,
it seems to me, part of our potential as Christians is to make do with
what we need. We are called not to grasp more than we need. We are not
to live so that our excess consumption becomes a cost to others.
So this saying of Jesus isn't so much about "spiritual" error and
losing eternal life (though it may have become that in the minds of some).
It makes more sense to hear his words in terms of real life as we know it