Thursday, March 28, 2013

Askesis in the Midst of a Consumer Society: A Homily from India

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Askesis in the Midst of a Consumer Society (Lk 16:22-23; 31)

By Anonymous - Posted on 30 September 2011
H.G. Dr. Youhanon Mar Demetrios
(A speech delivered by Met. Dr. Youhanon Mar Demetrios(Asst. Metropolitan, Diocese of Delhi) at STOTS, Nagpur)
Parables were used by Jesus to shock his audience into a changed mindset and lifestyle commensurate with the requirements of the Kingdom of God. The demands of this Kingdom meant that one had to demolish cherished and prized beliefs and adopt an attitude and course of action that clearly demonstrated a difference. We can see one such instance in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in St.Luke 16:19-31, a parable that belongs to the unique traditions of this gospel. Two verses are especially important for us: vv. 22-23: “The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side”; and vs.31: “He [Abraham] said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
What was shocking about this presentation was the inverted state of affairs in Jesus’ parable. Wealth and riches were interpreted as enjoying God’s blessings. So one would expect to be the case in the light of the instances in the Old Testament. Abraham as enjoying God’s blessing as a consequence of which his flocks and wealth multiply exponentially; similarly Jacob too is blessed and his assets increase. Job is blessed by God so that after his trials by Satan his wealth and holdings are increased “twice as much as he had before” (Job 42:10). So it comes as a rude shock to see that in the parable the rich man is sentenced to Hades, and there is no obvious sin he has committed for this situation. In fact, there is a good side to the rich man’s character- at least he permits the poor man Lazarus to live outside his house. Most of us would be incensed to have such a socially outcast person take up living quarters beside our beautiful bungalows; we would immediately call up the local police to have such a person evicted from the vicinity of our house!
But what Jesus castigates through this presentation is the self-oriented life-style of the rich man. He is described as being dressed “in purple and fine linen”, indicative of the level of his luxury, since purple was extremely expensive and clothes dyed in it were usually reserved for royalty and nobility. In addition, it is stated that he “feasted sumptuously every day” even as the poor man Lazarus tried to sustain his life by eating the crumbs and morsels that fell of the rich man’s table. Herein was the culpable act of the rich man! He had forgotten that his wealth and assets had been entrusted to him for the use and upliftment of those who were disadvantaged, especially people like Lazarus. It was in his obvious disregard of his social obligations that the rich man was found guilty. Righteousness before God was not a matter of a vertically correct set of spiritual exercises, but to be worked out also in the horizontal actions of those who had been marginalized.
This was the meaning behind Jesus’ conclusion to the parable, underscoring the ineffectuality of a dead person appearing and preaching to his relatives while they disregarded the teachings of persons like Moses and the Prophets. For, what constituted an important aspect of the teachings of the Law, symbolized by Moses and the prophets was that the God of Israel was a God who had a special concern and care for the widows, the orphans, the poor, the destitute and the aliens. This was a God who was different from the gods and goddesses of Canaan in that He was the god of the rich, the powerful and the privileged. His character was that He was specially designated as the God of the lost, the least and the last! It was this socially responsible relationship that God demanded of his people and one that was important in the Kingdom of Heaven.
We live in a context of unbridled consumerism. Our lives become an unending cycle of purchases and acquisitions of the latest model or latest gadget that appears on the market. It is no longer in what is needed that patterns our lifestyle, but in how our happiness is maintained by our latest acquisition. Our youth lives to sport the latest in handsets and fashions. Merely having a good mobile handset is not sufficient-it has to be the latest 3G enabled model! And this too is disposed off when yet another newer model appears in the market in about four to six months! Clothes must not merely be fashionable, but must sport the tag of a leading brand! And so the treadmill of our acquisitive life continues to roll on!
This is where the Orthodox understanding of askesis is of importance for the Christians in general, and especially for those of us who are or will be in the ministry. Askesis is generally translated as asceticism, the renunciation of the world and all that pertains to it. However, this is not its actual meaning; rather it implies a careful and considered participation in the world, taking only what is necessary for life so that God’s creation can be shared with everybody. It means that one must learn to live with the basics and eschew a life of consumption that blinds us to the needs of those who are disadvantaged in our society. Our wealth and assets are given to us so that we can exercise good stewardship of what God has given us, to be aware of a distributive justice in our use of resources. In this way we become good stewards of the resources that God has entrusted to our care.
It is not only in the individual sphere that this principle of askesis is to operative. About a decade ago, the General Assembly of the St. Thomas Orthodox Vaidika Sanghom suggested to the Holy Synod that there should be an emphasis of the use of a parish’s resources for the benefit of the local society as a whole. The assets of the parish were to be utilized for the development of the people in the vicinity of a parish, without prejudice to their religion, caste, gender or creed. And the Holy Synod had accepted this suggestion and decided that all parishes should implement this programme. Sad to say in spite of the passage of a decade we still have not implemented this programme and it continues to stagnate at the programme level. And thus we can see our parishes being part of this consumerist culture, with its resources and assets being expended on itself. We are more concerned to raise funds for the development of church buildings, rebuilding churches, erecting golden flagstaffs and the like. In comparison, how much effort do we expend in raising funds for the welfare of the poor, the illiterate and the sick who are eking out an existence in the shadow of our churches? How many parishes set apart a part of their yearly budget for the care and welfare of the disadvantaged in their localities? In adopting such a course of action are we not guilty of the sin of omission, the very sin for which the rich man was consigned to Hades?
In a few years’ time many of you will be responsible for parishes, appointed as vicars. It is my hope that this message will percolate down to your parish level so that it does not merely stay a devotional address but is translated into action. Let your parishes become a harbor of refuge for those who are distressed and who seek the comfort and solace of the church. May the churches become an oasis of comfort for those who are burning in the heat of life’s problems; may the parishes become havens where people will seek refuge from economic and other forms of relief. Only then can we fulfill the mandate Jesus has given us and enable us to realize the demands that are placed on us, as required by the Kingdom of God.
The reverse of the parable’s clarion call for this re-aligned priority in accordance with the Kingdom’s demands is God’s judgment. Just as the judgement was leveled against the rich man for the callous disregard of his social obligations so also the judgement is imminent against us if we fail in our duty to reorder our priorities. True, the Church has done much, and is doing significantly much to ameliorate the condition of our brothers and sisters who are disadvantaged in our society. However, when measured against the magnitude of the problem that we face in India, there is much to be done. What we have achieved appears painfully little in our context where poverty, illiteracy, deprivation, ill-health, malnutrition and a host of other problems exist. We would be inviting God’s judgement on ourselves if we are blind to our responsibilities in such a context. Indeed, we have Moses and the prophets with us to teach us and warn us of our duty and obligations. Can we turn a deaf ear to their message and remain blind to the mission that Christ has given us as individuals and as a Church?
We have heard the message now. Let us rise to act so that the parable becomes meaningful in our lives. He who has ears, let him hear!

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