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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Christmas, Greed, and a Sermon

True, the older I get, the harder it is for me to relish the holidays. Call me an old Scrooge, a pessimist, or just a loopy geezer. I may certainly fit the chosen category. That I do not deny. When did I change from holiday reveler to party-pooper? I honestly don't know, but these days I often associate more pain than joy with Christmas. Of course, this makes me feel guilty but numbness often creeps into hallowed places. This year, I am searching for some reasons behind my apparent negative behavior.   

The Sermon on the Mount is a collection of sayings and moral teachings that contain the central tenets of Christian discipleship. According to Matthew, Chapters 5-7, Jesus of Nazareth gave this sermon (estimated around A.D. 30) on a mountainside to his disciples and to a large, interested crowd. Augustine later said it was "a perfect standard of the Christian life" and John Donne stated that all one's sermon find their origins in this section of Scripture.

To no one's surprise, the Christmas Scripture is most often the wonderful story of the Immaculate Conception, the subsequent travels faced by Joseph and Mary, and the celebrated birth of the Christ child. (Matthew 1:18-25; Matthew 2:1-12; Luke 1:26-38; Luke 2:1-20) However, the Christmas season has increasing become a reverberating appeal of "I want. I want. I want..."

At Christmas, parents and friends often get tangled in the web of trying to grant every material wish of loved ones. The reality is that such behavior creates unrealistic, even detrimental expectations in both the gift giver and the gift receiver. Christmas then transforms into the monstrous holiday peopled solely by flashy advertisers, profit-minded retailers, and ravenous consumers. Beginning with the frantic frenzy of Black Friday and continuing through the sea of returns of the post-season, the holiday normally mutates into a rude, loud, and greedy behemoth.

Of course, all consumers know the value of setting limits, emphasizing giving over receiving, avoiding the acquisition of misinformed purchases, and showing appreciation for thoughtful consideration. With good intentions, no one during Christmas claims to march to the ring of the cash registers and to pour out money for status symbols and frivolities.

But, with heads spinning and eyes transfixed on dwindling December supplies, shoppers reach further and further into their modest and meager savings. After all, it's "the season to be jolly." And people find "the spirit of the season" in the latest Barbie Doll or brand new Lexus. Enter the "must have" gift and the item people "cannot live without." Unfortunately, along with these purchases come overextended credit cards and unpaid loans.

So, my point is that Christmas presents an excellent opportunity to review what some call the greatest sermon of all time -- The Sermon on the Mount. What did Christ teach about worldly possessions and the acquisition of expensive purchases? More importantly, what did Christ teach about greed, itself? The following is a small part of Jesus's Sermon on the Mount, the King James Version of the Holy Bible, Matthew 6:19-24.

19Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal:  20But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal:
 21For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
 22The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.
 23But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!
 24No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon (greed, avarice, and unjust worldly gain in Biblical literature -- personified as a false god).


What a timely, useful Scripture for the season. And by that statement, I am not condemning the custom of giving Christmas gifts, believing in Santa Claus, or spending money for a significant gift. Instead, I am lifting the ideal of a higher holiday plan -- we should care less about material indulges during the season and more about simpler gifts of spirit and of the heart. 

The amazing thing about resistance to this essential Christian thinking is that WE are responsible for our own material grief and corruption. Consider the irony of the following. When people are feverishly concerned about whether Walmart, the largest retailer in the world, uses the phrase "Happy Holidays" or "Merry Christmas," what does this really say about our Scriptural priorities? Why would we even expect that the mega-giant company would care about anything but making more money during the holidays?


Not picking on one retailer, but the point is that WE have developed the view that OUR WALMART Christmas purchases are the real essence of the season. We may insist on Walmart employees including Christ's name as part of a conventionalized expression (given with little or no concern), yet we willingly succumb to associations with the love of money and what it can buy at the store.


One British study claims the average woman will spend over 300 hours simply researching the best treats and gifts this year. (Eleanor Harding, "On the 38th Day of Christmas...," Daily Mail Online, November 18 2010) In America, Pricegrabber claims research shows that 66% of shoppers will spend over $500 for Christmas gifts. Last holiday season over 59% of shoppers spent $500 or more on gifts, and this year shoppers plan to spend $845 on average.(, November 4 2010) And we know these are tough economic times.


A simple question might be: How much of your Christmas preparation and money contribute to the treasures of heaven? Might not the true meaning of Christmas lie in a person's understanding of the Christian faith and the obligation to simple goodness? I propose a meaningful holiday study may be a review of Christ's words about service and money. The Sermon on the Mount may be the most appropriate Christmas Scripture.


A Christmas Carol by Tom Lehrer - Video

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