This morning I watched my 1-year-old waddle down the sidewalk in her mismatched outfit… a sign of the haste of the morning amidst the responsibilities of day-to-day living.
But as I watched her, I couldn’t help but reflect on how she was not at all aware or bothered by her poorly coordinated Easter onesie and pair of hot pink shorts on this warm July day in Michigan… In her pure innocence, she has not been captured by a sense of self-consciousness around the signals of prosperity we tend to express in our choices of clothing, personal appearance, housing.
It is so easy for us to be caught up in those status markers sustained by personal wealth. While watching my daughter I admittedly felt a little self-conscious of my rickety car approaching 200,000 miles or the fact that we live in one of the smaller houses on the block.
For many of us, a fixation with material surplus and accumulation gradually creeps into our lives in small but continual ways.
In today’s Gospel reading, we are told that Jesus shares a parable with a crowd about a rich man whose land produced a bountiful harvest. Rather than share that bounty with others, the man decides to build larger barns to store it all and save it for himself, that he may rest, eat, drink and be merry for years to come. Jesus tells the crowd to “guard against all greed for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions” …
Taking Jesus’ message to heart will require a profound shift. In fact, today’s dominant economic system and the culture it upholds encourages accumulation of wealth and material goods. The mainstreamed and marketized narrative of a good life, characterized by constant expansion and luxury runs deep in our culture.
Some have noted that we have shifted our focus from "the good life" to a fixation on "the goods life." And in fact, we now live in a society with little to no limits on those goods.
But thankfully many are waking up to the ways that this focus on short term wealth accumulation has high costs – especially for future generations. Some of the greatest costs are ecological costs, which our Holy Faith, in particular, has called us to see in Laudato Si’.
This growth and accumulation without limits is driving environmental problems - we see collapsing fish stocks and declining wildlife numbers, and millions of lives are lost each year as a result of rising temperatures and its impacts.
Our economic system also has costs for our human ecology in the ways it reinforces inequality. Wealth is unevenly distributed and the system enables it to accumulate largely for those who already have access to it. This inequality is getting worse in almost all parts of the world. How did we get to a place where the richest 1% have accumulated twice as much wealth as 90% of the global population?
We are swimming in what Pope Francis calls a “throwaway culture”, a culture of consumption and waste. We need, as Pope Francis has said, to develop an economics that’s appropriate to the needs of our time.
I think today’s readings offer a bold and important invitation for us to do. The first we hear in Colossians – “you have taken off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed, for knowledge, in the image of its creator.”
What is the old self we need to set aside? What is the new self that we are to put on in the image of our creator?
Our creation in the image of God gives us a beautiful vocation and destiny: we are made for relationship with God and one another, and not just any kind of relationship, but the relationship of mutual love that our tradition calls “communion.”
Situated inside mutual love, or communion, we are disturbed by the ways our society continues to struggle with poverty and economic insecurity especially in a time of such surplus wealth. Certainly considerable wealth has been made possible by exploitation, colonization, slavery, poor labor conditions, extraction and more… And these injustices should always be kept in mind and repaired whenever possible. And many have accumulated wealth by sharing in the benefits of aggregate economic growth and must reckon with the responsibility to use those goods in ways that realize solidarity and the common good.
Do you feel invited to say no to an economy that pushes for more and more accumulation at the expense of others and our environment? Do you feel called to explore a gift economy, participating in the reciprocal exchange of our needs and our resources for one another?
Or perhaps you just feel overwhelmed by the scale of need…We are individuals and families… what can we really do to help move us out of a system that seems to be exacerbating inequality and division?
To that I say, all of us, through our small acts and ideas in circulation as one big community, we can shift the culture.
I recently read about Fr. John Ryan’s critiques of what he calls “the higher standard of living fallacy”, suggesting that the problem is not simply a matter of going a little bit overboard, but rather this whole story of life that seeks novelties and comforts and knows nothing of genuinely higher goods. We need a new story…
Doing so will take an ecological conversion as we hear about in Laudato Si’… We will have to let go of the short-termism and instant gratification that is so pervasive. We will need to adopt a longer-term view, one that helps us understand what it might look like to live in ways that would make us good ancestors. It reminds me of the passage in today’s Gospel parable where God says to the harvester - ‘You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?’
Jesus goes on to tell the crowd - “Thus will it be for all who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God.”
Thankfully the wisdom of today’s scriptures can help shake us awake to the riches that truly matter - the riches of relationships of communion, of care for one another and our common home.
Elizabeth Garlow has worked in the areas of social entrepreneurship, impact investing and public policy with an eye toward building an economy rooted in solidarity and mutual care. Three years ago, Elizabeth was moved by the launch of the global Economy of Francesco Movement to co-find the Francesco Collaborative, a network of investors, entrepreneurs and other changemakers seeking to respond to Pope Francis’ call to be “protagonists of transformation” in our economy. Today, she runs “Livable Future Investing” workshops through the Francesco Collaborative, inviting investors to discern and embrace their most important work in building the solidarity economy. She also accompanies religious congregations as they discern how to align their assets with mission in an ever-evolving world. She also conducts research on well-being economics as a fellow with New America. Elizabeth holds a BA from Kalamazoo College and a Master’s in public policy and economics from Princeton University. She loves swimming, playing folk music, and making a home in the Detroit area with her partner Paul and their new daughter Sophia.
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