When I was a child, the adult members of Pittsburgh society adverted to the Bible unreasonably often. What arcana! Why did they spread this scandalous document before our eyes? If they had read it, I thought, they would have hid it. They did not recognize the lively danger that we would, through repeated exposure, catch a dose of its virulent opposition to their world. Instead they bade us study great chunks of it, and think about those chunks, and commit them to memory, and ignore them. By dipping us children in the Bible so often, they hoped, I think, to give our lives a serious tint, and to provide us with quaintly magnificent snatches of prayer to produce as charms while, say, being mugged for our cash or jewels.
Annie Dillard, “The Book of Luke,” The Annie Dillard Reader, 276
By the twelfth chapter of St. Luke’s gospel we get it: Jesus and the kingdom he inaugurates turn everything upside down. The proud are scattered, the powerful are brought down from their thrones, the hungry are filled with good things, the rich are sent away empty, the poor find good news, the captives are released, the blind recover their sight, the oppressed go free. Blessed are the poor, the hungry, those who weep; woe to the rich, the full-bellied, and those who are laughing now.
These words of justice and compassion stir us, move us, inspire us. Occupying a place somewhere between the destitute poor and the obscenely wealthy, we want what Jesus wants. Preach it, Jesus.
But then he gets a little too personal, going to the heart of our middle-class presumptions and preoccupations. He tells the story of a man who, if we’re honest, seems worthy of respect for his prudence and foresight, his hard work that resulted in abundance, his savvy and strategic preparation. Isn’t this a man to admire?
Jesus calls him a fool.
Not because he’s rich but because he’s poor and doesn’t know it. In his greed–his desire to secure his own happiness–he can’t discern his lack. He can’t feel the big, gaping hole that he (and we) strive unsucessfully to fill. Or maybe he feels it all too well.
Qoheleth felt it. The Teacher (or Preacher) from Ecclesisastes is chillingly blunt, stark and straightforward, morose, even, in his assessment of our human striving for happiness: “All is vanity.”
In the mid-1960s, poet John Ciardi identified the cultural forces that make us “deliberately unhappy.” Advertising and the whole of the American economy, he observed, are predicated on a “dedicated insatiability.” Contrary to what we might suppose, it isn’t that our consumer culture makes possible the satisfaction of all our wants–material goods to store in our barns (and big houses); rather, advertisers train us to be perpetually dissatisfied. As theologian William Cavanaugh has observed, consumerism is not so much about having more as it is about having something else.
This Word of the Lord may sit uneasy with us this week but the news is still–always–good. “Your life is hidden with Christ in God.” The writer to the Colossians encourages us to live deeply into the truth of who we are: icons of our Creator (v. 10). To bear the image of the triune God is to participate in, however fleetingly in this life, real abundance–the overflow of love and generosity that is God’s life and even our own as we seek to love neighbors and friends, strangers and enemies. In and through such love we are “rich toward God” (Lk. 12:21).
The Happiness Market (Ciardi’s term), it turns out, sells no such thing. But the texts this week, in proclaiming “virulent opposition to [our] world”–its vanity, its greed–point to where ultimate contentedness is found.