I have had the privilege over the years of making a number of visits to Guatemala. It is a beautiful country of lush mountains, volcanoes, deep lakes, Mayan ruins, and most of all living Mayan cultures with twenty-two language groups and all their customs, traditions, practices. As you may know, Guatemala is perpetually trading off with Nicaragua for the dubious honor of being the second poorest country in the hemisphere. (First place always goes to the equally beautiful ravaged Haiti.) Sixty-seven percent of Guatemala’s population lives not just in poverty but in extreme poverty, and the great majority of them are Mayan. For many of them, their poverty has only gotten worse in the last several decades. For millennia they had been growing corn, squash and beans as subsistence farmers. They were poor, they had no extra money with which to grow their assets of any kind, but they always had enough food. Then about twenty years ago some entrepreneurs came to their villages and strongly encouraged them to grow broccoli and strawberries for sale rather than their own food for their own consumption. They were told that they would get high prices for them because Americans eat them year-round. They would make lots of income, and with it they could buy the food they needed, plus make improvements to their homes, and even buy scooters so they could travel from village to village easily and not have to hitchhike. Think of the freedom they would have!
And so a number of families turned their small plots over to the cultivation of strawberries and broccoli for the North American market. They sold this produce and had more cash in their hands than they ever could have imagined. And they bought scooters, and traveled wherever they needed to. They sold their next crop of broccoli and strawberries (you can plant year-round in Guatemala’s climate). They found, though, that they weren’t getting as much money as they had been promised. As time went on, the money they received only decreased, but they had debts to pay on those scooters, and not enough money left for food. There was no way, with their small plots, to grow enough food for export to support even a subsistence lifestyle. Even if they sold their scooters and returned to growing the complete nutrition they needed to eat, they were permanently stuck in a downward spiral of debt. When some of these families and their advocates, both in Guatemala and abroad, challenged the businessmen (who were making a tidy profit on their cheaply purchased broccoli and strawberries), they washed their hands of the whole matter, saying that it was the farmers’ own unwise choice to buy luxuries like sneakers and scooters. What could they have been thinking?
Far be it from me to cast aspersions on those poor farmers. My own context (and economic stratum) are very different, but I identify with the alluring messages they were getting. We are told that we should want many things. We are encouraged to purchase the consumer goods that would identify us with a lifestyle and an economic stratum that is higher than what we can realistically sustain. Think of the credit card debt sustained in this country today. We want things – I want things. But we’re also informed in subtle and not-so-subtle ways that we have to purchase these commodities – we have to do our part to keep the international economy going! Hey you, driving an older car – do your part and get over to the dealer! And while you’re out, stop off at a new subdivision and put a bid on an almost-completed house! Then take your new car off to the mall and buy a whole new wardrobe for your new walk-in closet. Do your part – your moral duty – as a global citizen to keep the global economy afloat. The free world is all on the shoulders of your spending power! So spend, spend, spend!
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke to very humble folk – by the standards of that day as well as our own. But he knew the economic pressures they were facing, the choices that they – and we – are presented with – the allegiances that compete for our attention. God and wealth, Jesus says – two big choices. This is both a simple statement and no simplification of the matter.
He reminds us of good King Solomon. It is helpful to reflect on that gentleman’s circumstances. According to the first Book of Kings, King Solomon, his seven hundred wives of royal stock, three hundred concubines, plus all their combined staff each day consumed thirty measures of flour, sixty measures of meal, ten fattened oxen, twenty free-range oxen, one hundred sheep, plus an unspecified number of deer, gazelles, roebucks, and fattened fowl. And as the Bible notes, all this was eaten off of plates made of gold.
But Solomon wasn’t just rich in terms of material things. He was the wisest human who ever lived. He wrote three thousand proverbs and fifteen hundred poems. He could tell you anything you ever wanted to know about horticulture – from the cedars of Lebanon to the hyssop in your back yard. He was just as knowledgeable about animals, birds, reptiles, and fish. “People came from all over the world to witness his astounding knowledge. He was pious, and built an unforgettable temple; he was business-minded and monopolized the whole arms trade in his part of the world; he was a warrior who never lost a battle with his fourteen hundred war chariots, and his twelve thousand horses.
And yet Jesus says that Solomon in all his array was nothing in comparison to a simple bird, flying high in the sky, to the splendor of a flower out in the field, or even to a blade of grass.” [Donders] All the glories of the richest people or most accomplished in any learned field are nothing compared to the glory of a common, un-exotic bird soaring through the air. Jesus invites us to indentify with that bird, not with Solomon. He says the same thing to those who really could compare themselves to Solomon in terms of wealth or arsenal – Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Donald Trump, George Bush, Donald Rumsfeld. He says the same to every intellectual luminary who’s taken home a Nobel Prize: what counts about you has nothing to do with what you acquire but with who you genuinely are.
The prophet Isaiah wrote to people who had suffered for so long; he said “you who have lived for so long in darkness, show yourselves.” Show yourselves – Jesus says the same. Work on having a right and healthy relationship with money and with professional achievement and recognition. Show yourselves – that is where your true treasures lie. Henry David Thoreau said, “Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.” “Seek first the reign of God and its righteousness,” says Jesus, “and all the rest that you really need will come to you.”
We live with so many competing messages, whether we’re subsistence farmers in Central America or genteel working folks in Central New Jersey. Jesus tells us all, in every millennium, culture, and economic stratum, to keep our eyes on the prize, the Kingdom of God, and in doing just that we will make the just and right choices. Many other prizes may be trotted before our eyes – from sneakers and scooters to gleaming homes and cars. If we seek first God’s Kingdom and God’s righteousness, we will do the right thing. We will value first what beauty God has placed inside ourselves and every other human being. We will be able to live the great commandment to love and value others as we love and value ourselves. And when we do this – when we place human dignity over every other thing – we will find that our priorities may be different from the ones we’re popularly instructed to cultivate. The devastated family in Beichuan, Sichuan Province, China, is the bird soaring in the air, and so we are in solidarity with them. Children displaced by the fighting in Sudan are the lilies of the field. A woman raising two kids in Mercer County, working hard at two jobs, exhausted but not defeated as she dreams of the simple opportunities she wants her cherished kids to have – she is that single blade of grass that trumps in worth and beauty all Trump Towers. With our hearts set firmly on the Kingdom of the God of sparrows, lilies, and blades of grass, we are freed to show ourselves in all our challenges and imperfections, and to seek the Kingdom of God and its righteousness – to choose rightly throughout our days those ways in which we can truly help to build that Kingdom of mercy, justice, and peace – of soaring sparrows, resplendent lilies, and towering blades of grass. Amen.
Joseph G. Donders, Praying and Preaching the Sunday Gospel, (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1990).
Richard Beaton, www.workingpreacher.org