I. What is the temperature in Nashville Tennessee? That’s what I want to know—but what do they tell me instead? Every hour on the hour, we hear the Dow Jones average on the radio news stations. The Dow Jones average is on my online newspaper copy by the minute.
Is that information I need? For economic news, I’d prefer to know the unemployment rate, or the number of evictions that occurred this week, or the amount of new investments in green energy this month. No, they tell me a number that only investors need. I want to know what the peoples’ economy is doing at the ground level.
Then there is the weather report. Have you ever timed the length of those? Did I need to know the exact temperature of every village in eastern Massachusetts at this moment? 56 right now in Lowell, 57 in Quincy, 56 in Lynn—and so on, a degree or two difference over dozens named across our region.
Really? I want to know the spiritual temperature in those cities—how are they doing with Covid, with plans for school, the mood at home. Isn’t there a number for that? No, they tell me there might be a spot of showers for a half hour in Fitchburg tonight while they’re sleeping. My God, they are wasting my precious time.
Instead, tell me what is the quality of life in Nashville where my closest graduate school friend lives, not that it’s raining there. What is their life satisfaction index? What about Nashville post-George Floyd? Couldn’t we just have a figure of whether life is still worthwhile there? Then in Newton, and Boston—how are we feeling overall? Is there a handy measurement that could tell us how it’s going at the corner of Mass Ave and Melnea Cass Blvd., or in the ER at Boston Medical Center? Please, just don’t give me the Dow Jones average any more!
II. If such a measurement ever could exist, maybe the Rich Young Man in our scripture lesson this morning would have felt more fulfilled—he was a spiritual man. But I thought Oscar Wilde had an interesting take on that passage. He believed Christ saw the comfortable people as the miserable ones, the ones in need of ministry, who need the burden of their luxuries lifted. And the way to do it, is for them to give it all away. Wilde held that selling all that the rich young prince had and giving it to the poor was meant to benefit him, not the poor. Christ, Wilde wrote from prison, pointed out “there was no difference at all between the lives of others and our own lives.” In a similar vein, he argued that Christ didn’t command us to “forgive our enemies” for their sake, but for our own sake “because Love is more beautiful than Hate.”
Some people do give their millions away, fortunately. Huge fortunes have been donated to support hunger relief and research into disease, to the arts and to environmental causes, to education and to athletics. Wilde’s point is not that giving it all away is supposed to make us feel better—rather, it relieves us of the burden of being rich, it will relieve us of trying to live up to our affluent peers and pretend to believe things we don’t remotely believe. Wilde argued that Christ had pity for the poor, of course, for “those who are shut up in prisons (as Wilde in fact was), for the lowly, for the wretched, but he has far more pity for the the rich, for the hard Hedonists (Wilde here was speaking of himself and his cohort), for those who take the short term view and waste their freedom in becoming slaves to things, for those who wear soft raiment and live in kings’ houses.” “Riches and Pleasure seemed to Christ to be really greater tragedies than Poverty and Sorrow.” “Christ was thinking of the soul of the rich young prince—the lovely soul that wealth was marring.” Wilde of course was reflecting his ambivalence toward his own cohort in society, the idle rich who inherited their wealth and squandered it on the most frivolous and damaging pursuits. “Christ treated worldly success as something to be absolutely despised. He saw nothing in it at all. He looked on wealth as encumbrance to a man . . . Christ swept it all aside—he showed that the spirit alone was of value.”
III. There was a bit of Ecclesiastes in Wilde that saw all our pursuits as so much Vanity, Vanity, all is Vanity. Wilde felt Christ just wanted us to be better lovers—“Christ was the leader of the lovers—he saw that love was that lost secret of the world for which the wise men had been looking . . . “He wanted us to be more philosophical, and more accomplished in humane skills.
The world earns its daily bread by the sweat of our brows, true. Jobs are one thing, but not worth the workaholism of our society. Michael Moore showed us in “Where Shall We Invade Next” how badly we Americans compared to European countries, for instance, in paid vacation time permitted and taken, parental leave, and in the case of Germany, freedom from work-related email off-hours. But people work hard at jobs that don’t even support a family—it can take three jobs when the minimum wage is so low. It can take three jobs when successful businesses and industries don’t reward their employees accordingly.
What is a business except an engine for community health and prosperity. Ralph Nader argued that business has 4 constituencies to which it is responsible—the stockholders, the employees, the customers, and the surrounding community and environment. What were companies thinking that necessitated EPA funds to remove toxic waste they leave behind? What were companies thinking when they extracted valuable metals and minerals from God’s earth at the cost of the health and reduced longevity of the miners. Why doesn’t the ruling class look at business as a community service? The wealth gap in this country is a continuing shame upon us.
But stop a minute with me. The accumulation of personal wealth has another, a human explanation—we are anxious for the survival of our progeny, and so people try to accumulate huge reserves to pass along to family members that even if we die, somehow they won’t. We parents do our utmost to guarantee our children safe and secure futures—one way is to will them our fortunes, those that have such, as if those are impervious to depressions or inflation or catastrophe.
Think of this. You know, the mythology about dragons in past societies reveals an important truth. Tell me, what function do the dragons perform usually? They usually are protecting a cave and the cave contains treasure—and the treasure is enormous. The dragon defends treasure—the false hope of the rich who believe it will guarantee our security and longevity, perhaps immortality. A real life illustration comes in an article written by a Wall Street hedge fund master after the 2008 crash—he was asked what was behind the greed of his peers on Wall Street, what needs did they have which justified such ridiculous levels of wealth? He wrote, they don’t need the money, they don’t even use the money, it is just the stimulation of seeing the numbers grow and grow.
IV. The best we can give our children and grand-children is a sense of moral responsibility for others. And it is up to each of us to make our own decisions about how to live that out, apart from the pressures of society or church, for that matter. The righteousness of God fosters true growth, growth like that of the palm tree and the great cedars. And the righteous flourish even into their old age, always green and full of sap. Righteousness also protects institutions into our old age and is the guarantor of a new generation on this street corner. Eliot Church has a great legacy of social justice and righteousness, and even today in our 175 year Eliot Church is flourishing—not so numerous, but your palm trees and cedars out there are still green and full of sap!
Jesus devoted more words to money than any other ethical subject—so don’t give me the Dow Jones average any more! Jesus never mentioned the weather, except for the spiritual weather. I know he’d be as concerned as I am about the temperature in Nashville, as I am.