People in today’s society are suffering under an epidemic of stress, anxiety and other mental illnesses. All of us have been touched in some way by the pressures of living in a busy, demanding, consumer driven world. Many of us live with the insomnia, panic attacks and depression that are common throughout the developed world. At the core of all these disorders, however, is a disease that most of us have probably never heard of.
It is called “affluenza”. Social scientists have coined this term which is a combination of the words “affluence” and “influenza” to describe how rampant consumerism, the saturation of advertising and materialism are breaking down our peace of mind. Television, radio and now the internet over-stimulate us with images of appliances and gadgets that they assure us we cannot live without. To acquire all these goods, we overwork ourselves and get into debt, which create even more pressures. When we do manage to afford these luxuries, we find that they do not satisfy us and leave us wanting even more. The downward cycle continues leaving us confused, bewildered and feeling lost.
However, the most devastating effect of this so-called “affluenza” is that it isolates us from one another leaving us with a deep sense of loneliness. We are working and keeping so busy that we are finding less time for our family and friends. Many young people spend so much time watching television, diddling with their smart phones and playing video games that they do not even know how to make friends or sustain a conversation. Perhaps the biggest problem is that we live in big houses secluded from our neighbors and are constantly in our cars with no opportunities to speak to one another. This lack of contact with other human beings with its increased isolation deepens our sense of depression.
Though the word “affluenza” does not appear in the Bible, Sacred Scripture is well aware of how wealth can corrupt individuals and a society. In today’s first reading, the prophet Amos scolds the rich who are content to enjoy lavish feasts while the nation of Israel was falling apart all around him. What would he say to us today who watch several hours of television, go to restaurants and gossip while billions are starving and the morals of our society are decaying around us?
In today’s gospel, Jesus offers us the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. According to Jesus, the rich man is not condemned because of his wealth. Rather it is because he did nothing to help the poor beggar at his door that he ends up in eternal torment. In heaven, the roles are reversed. The rich man becomes the beggar pleading for a sip of cold water.
This parable is a warning for us. Jesus is not only talking about the super-wealthy, top one percent of earners here. He is talking about all of us who have more than we need, who have more than one coat, more than one pair of shoes and who eat more than one meal a day. The fact is that our economy has developed to such an extent that even the poorest among us have more than a rich man of Jesus’ time would have had. Neither is Jesus issuing a blanket condemnation of wealth. It is good for us to have what we need, to be able to feed ourselves and provide for our families.
What Jesus is condemning is our tendency to use our wealth not to enrich others but to separate ourselves from them. We can become so satisfied with all that we have that we forget our responsibilities to help our neighbor. We can stack our belongings so high that they become a prison locking us away from real contact with others. We can be digging so deep for the buried treasure that we end up digging our own graves. In the process, we suffer all the torments of stress, anxiety, loneliness and depression.
There is a better way. The gospels offer us a cure for affluenza. Rather than labor only for what this world can offer, we are called by Jesus to look toward the things of heaven. Following the example of our master, we are called to put people before possessions and relationships before belongings. We are called to recognize that the hunger that is driving us is not for material things but for a loving, personal relationship with the God who created us. In the light of God’s word, we learn that we find our fulfillment not in the love of money but in the love of neighbor.
Poverty is one of the most difficult topics for a homily. While there are plenty of impoverished people, there seem to be few good solutions for alleviating their misery. We know from experience that some of the policies enacted to help the poor too often ended up hurting them even more. Sadly, we worry that money we give to beggars on the street can only enable them to indulge addictions. The causes of poverty are so complex that it is no wonder that we often want to not think or talk about it.
However, as followers of Jesus Christ who calls us to love our neighbor, we have to do something no matter how small to alleviate the sufferings of our neighbors. Whether it is to donate to a charity, volunteer at a soup kitchen or befriend someone who has fallen on hard times, the one option we do not have is to look the other way.
When we do find the courage to sacrifice our time and resources to help others, something wonderful happens. We find that the stress, loneliness and depression that hounded us begins to dissipate. In the depths of our being, we find the hunger that drove us before is now being satisfied. Though we thought we were helping others, it turns out that the roles are reversed. We become the ones who find refreshment when we serve the needy around us. Then we begin to experience the abundant life that Jesus calls us to when He tells us that we will discover Him among the poor.