Originally presented in middle and upper school daily worship services.
Last week Father Nate gave us a message about stewardship which set a foundation to wonder about how our virtue this month applies to our lives. His point that most resonated from my perspective was this idea that God does not want us to hoard all the legos - keep all the good stuff for ourselves. Instead, he offered us a vision of humanity that is an endless cycle - each generation passing what it has made onto the next as we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. Today I would like us to consider an extension of that chain.
Roman Krznaric is a modern philosopher who, in his book “The Good Ancestor,” asserts that among the most disenfranchised, the most powerless people, the ones who have no control over their futures, are those people who are yet to be born. He states that they cannot vote for politicians nor otherwise have any say in the decisions being made now that will impact how they live their lives in 50, 100, 200 years from now. He goes on to say that in our digital age - the age of computers, social media, and artificial intelligence - we suffer more than ever from what he calls a “pathological short-termism.” By that, he means to say that because technology allows us more than ever to achieve immediate answers, immediate satisfaction of our wants that we think less of our descendants- those who will come after us, and more about what we need at this particular moment.
Mr. Krznaric believes that this type of thinking is ultimately unsustainable - that at some point, humans will need to respond to our digital age by reminding ourselves that we are just “an eye blink in cosmic time.” This change in thinking would take what he calls a “deep-time humility” - a recognition that each of us has just a moment when compared to the long history of humanity to impact what comes after us. He challenges us to imagine putting ourselves in the role of what he calls “The Good Ancestor.” By that he asks us to imagine ourselves being talked about 50,100,200 years from now by those that follow us. What decisions are we making now that will impact those that come after us? What choices will we make with the gifts we have been given by God and by circumstance of birth - material gifts, natural talents. What will we do with them? Will those folks that come after us consider us good ancestors? Wonder about that image with me for a moment.
“How can we be a Good Ancestor?”
The place to start perhaps is to ask the question, “What do God and Jesus ask of us, require of us?”
The first marker perhaps is the Ten Commandments.
While there are many laws and commandments written in the Old Testament, these ten are considered the most important because they are the only ones that are written with “the finger of God” as is related to us in Exodus. They were revealed to humankind as a guide for how we are to act both in worship and how we treat each other. If we imagine God’s word, revealed through Moses, using the lens of our virtue of the month, stewardship (don’t hoard the legos), we can see that God is giving us a roadmap on how not to be possessive. Each of God’s “thou shalt nots” is a command to not take or keep things for ourselves, serve ourselves before God and others:
- Thou shalt not have other gods before me (worship things that you want to worship ahead of God)
- Thou shalt not take the Lord’s name in vain (put your emotion/your needs ahead of being reverent to God)
- Thou shalt not covet ( want or envy other people’s things)
- Thou shalt not steal
- Thou shalt not commit adultery (be unfaithful to your loved one.)
- Thou shalt not bear false witness (lie to gain the advantage over others).
God is commanding us not to be possessive, not to make life about our needs in all these things.
In the Gospels, Jesus comes not to change these commandments but to explicate them more fully.
He simplifies but emphasizes what we should do in the Summary of the Law.
“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Jesus takes the Ten Commandments and really all Jewish law, and gives us two very active and positive directives. In order to steward our gifts, to get us to release the possessive tendency, Jesus tells us we must direct all of our energy toward trusting God, the foundation of loving him and serving others. That’s it. Pretty simple.
In the Book of Sirach, today’s reading, we hear God tell us of two types of ancestors who will be exalted, be praised. First are those who will be remembered forever for their great deeds - their wise judgments (King Solomon), the music and poems they write (Mozart, Homer), or the wealth they create (Bill Gates). The second group, though, probably best describes most of us, those whose names will not be known 100, 200 years from now. God says of us,
But of others, there is no memory. They have perished as though they had never existed; they have become as though they had never been born, they and their children after them. But these also were godly people whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten.
I think what God is trying to tell us here is that while we may not be famous a century from now, the consequences of our deeds, our actions, our decisions will be felt, will be remembered by those who follow us. What we do every day will impact those that live here in the future. Imagine what they might say.
“Will we be considered Good Ancestors?”
So God and Jesus have given us important direction, but let’s be even more practical. What does that look like, particularly as it relates to being stewards of our possessions. For that, I wish to turn to a religious thinker from the 19th century, Pope Leo XIII.
Each of us, no matter our circumstances, when compared to just about everyone else in the rest of the world now and in human history, we are living a privileged existence. We have food to eat each day. We have a roof over our heads; running water and electricity abound. Life expectancy in the United States is close to double what it was just a century ago. Access to knowledge and our ability to innovate is also unprecedented in our Digital Age. The pace of change is incredible; you will no doubt have opportunities and comforts in the future that people of my generation could only dream of. I have benefitted from the same comparison with my parents. We all got it pretty good. At no time in human history has there been more economic growth and more wealth. The age of technology has been remarkable in that way.
Some historians argue that the period in America that is most analogous to how we are living now is what we call the Gilded Age - the time between 1870-1900. I hope somewhere in your American History classes you have learned or will learn about it. These three decades included massive economic growth and significant social change because of industrialization. This was the transformation of our economy from one that was primarily agricultural - based on farming - to one that relied on machines, on the first technologies - the widespread use of steam and then combustion engines, the introduction of the railroad, oil exploration, the factory and a little later the assembly line. These all caused economic growth and the introduction of monopolies - large companies that completely dominated certain industries at the expense of ordinary citizens - and some argue the creation of a wealth gap and social upheaval. During the Gilded Age, many called into question the capitalist system, its fairness, and whether there might be a better way for us to organize ourselves. It was during this period that both socialism and communism were first widely discussed as possible alternatives. In 1891, into this argument stepped Pope Leo XIII.
Popes throughout history have issued what they call encyclicals. These are statements that outline the Catholic church’s view on important topics. Pope Leo decided to issue one giving the church’s opinion on this question of economic systems called Rerum Novarum - roughly translated into English: “Regarding New Things”. Some of what Leo had to say seems to resonate even today, particularly as we think about our virtue of the month, stewardship - how we should take care of and share the wealth, the talent, and the skills we have been given and have earned.
Pope Leo started his argument by stating the reasons why people should have the freedom to work, amass wealth, and own property. He believed that it was proper for humans to be fairly compensated for the labor they performed. He believed it was just for people to become rich through the fruits of their work. However, he also believed that this system only functions - is only just and moral - when we realize there must be limits. No one should hoard the legos. He said,
“When what necessity demands has been supplied, and one’s standing fairly taken thought for (in others we have what we need, not what we want, but what we need), it becomes a duty to give to the indigent (those less fortunate than we are) out of what remains.”
In other words, it’s ok to use your wealth to acquire and enjoy what you need, but it is your moral duty to share what you have left over.
He goes on to say,
“To sum up, then, what has been said: Whoever has received from the divine bounty a large share of temporal blessings, whether they be external and material, or gifts of the mind, has received them for the purpose of using them for the perfecting of his own nature, and, at the same time, that he may employ them, as the steward of God’s providence, for the benefit of others.”
In other words, those of us who find ourselves with a lot of talent and wealth must share it - must use it for the benefit of others. That is being the steward of God’s providence, fulfilling God’s will.
“How can we be a Good Ancestor?”
Love is connection; sin is separation. Hoarding the legos, separating ourselves from our neighbors is an act that also separates us from God’s will, God’s love. When we take the abundance that we have all been given - the talents, the skills, the treasures - when we connect ourselves, our decisions, to the well-being of others, particularly those who have no voice, those that will come well after us, it is then that we are living out our virtue of this month - stewardship. It is then that we are being a Good Ancestor.
May we all have the wisdom to always put first those who will come next.