Saturday, August 04, 2007

Conspicuous Consumption

We live in a society which, even more than in the time of Jesus, measures quality of life in terms of the abundance of our possessions. Yesterday we were in a car dealer's looking for a little car for our daughter and her husband. On the wall I noticed a colourful map of the city of Manchester, which is where she lives. Red areas indicated people who live on welfare benefits. Yellow signified people who suffer from considerable disadvantages compared with other people. Blue represented happy families, and purple areas showed where people live when they are conspicuously affluent. You can imagine which were the car dealer's favourite kind of people.

My daughter was interested in buying a basic Fiat Panda - a little city car, easy to park, great for running around the City on short journeys and very economical on petrol. However, to test drive it she had to drive the sports' model - which has a 100 brake horsepower engine. Now if you wanted a racing car, would you buy a Fiat Panda? I don't think so! The only reason there's a model with a 100 brake horse power engine is because Jeremy Clarkson, the presenter of "Top Gear", said that the Fiat Panda would be a great little car if it had a more powerful engine, so Fiat immediately rushed out a version with "vavavoom", in case anyone took his advice.

Surely, though. anyone who bought such a car would have more money than sense. And isn't that the problem with a lot of the things which people make and sell? Many things for sale in our society are a waste of money - designed to appeal to people whose values are all wrong, and who have more money than sense.

The farmer in Jesus' story[1] was just such a person. He literally had more possessions than he knew what to do with. He built bigger barns to store the surplus in, as an insurance against things going wrong in the future, which maybe wasn't such a daft idea. But even then he had far more than he needed, so he decided to enjoy himself as much as possible and become a conspicuous consumer, spending as much as he could as fast as he could in a desperate bid to be happy. His good fortune didn't last long, though, because he died and discovered that, of course, you can't take your material prosperity with you. As far as the Market was concerned, he was a huge success. Today he would have been one of the purple people on the map of Manchester, the people who have 'made it big'. But in spiritual terms he was still a pauper.

What should the farmer have done? Jesus was very keen on people being moderate consumers of earthly possessions. He urged his followers to pray for enough to meet their needs, but no more. And he urged people to have counter-cultural values - to store up a secure legacy in heaven rather than building an insecure one on earth.

It's very hard to follow Jesus' advice exactly in modern society, though some people do come close. Some members of religious orders, for instance, have no personal possessions. But even then, there have been difficult decisions to make. Hundreds of years ago the Franciscan order was divided by a bitter dispute about whether - to be true to the teachings of Jesus and St Francis - it was necessary for members of the Order to rely entirely on charity, giving away any surplus that they received to the people in greatest need, or whether it was sensible for the Order to invest some of its surplus to create a secure source of income for the future. The Franciscans didn't keep any of the money for themselves, of course. The were only saving it to help the future work of the Order, in case there should be lean times ahead - times of famine or flood - when the charitable donations might dry up. But some people still felt that this was a betrayal of the values by which Jesus and St Francis had lived.

It's even harder for ordinary Christians to be entirely true to the teaching of Jesus. We are all encouraged to have insurance policies and to build up personal pensions for our retirement. And with there being so many uncertainties about pensions these days, some people buy a big house as a kind of pension - with the intention of selling it and downsizing when they are older. Is that the right kind of thing to do?

It's difficult to criticise people who behave in a prudent way, and seek only to avoid becoming a burden on others. But certainly, once people start to indulge in conspicuous consumption - building their status on the kind of clothes they wear, the sort of car they drive and the size of their house - they have departed from the way of Jesus. What a pity that people don't take more interest in being 'rich toward God' - doing what is right, helping those in need, praying for the coming of God's world order and trusting in God's love above all else.

[1] Luke 12.13-21

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