Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church, Killiney, Co Dublin on Sunday, 12th March 2006
“What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? “
I picked up a bag of dog biscuit one evening last week to give the dogs their dinner and muttered as a stream of it poured out of a hole in the side of the bag all over the floor. There are times when I think that Tesco specializes in dented tins, open packets and torn bags.
The hole in the bag, with the meal pouring out of it reminded me of the hessian sacks that used to be used on my grandfather’s farm. They would lie in a storehouse until the threshing machine came each year; and inevitably the odd one would succumb to the attention of the resident rodents. The grain would be pouring out of the thresher into sacks held in place by men who came in for threshing day. The holes made by the rats sometimes only became apparent as the sack filled out with corn; suddenly grain would come streaming from the side. My grandfather seemed remarkably adept at quickly plugging holes in the hundredweight sacks with no more than a twist of straw.
At harvest time when the twine around the sheaves would sometimes snap, he was as quick at twisting straw together to bind the sheaves. No matter how I tried, my attempts at binding anything with no more than a few stalks of straw came to nothing. The stalks would come unravelled and the wheat would end up lying on the floor.
Grandad’s ability was in making something from nothing. The straw he used was that which lay around on the floor, that which would have no use other than providing bedding for his twenty cows that came into their stalls each evening to sleep for the night.
He was a master of recycling before the word was invented. Everything was stored away, every piece of twine, every nut, screw and bolt, every box, every sack, nothing was wasted; nothing was disposed of without thought. His neighbouring farmers were as frugal in their ways; every bit of machinery was fixed and re-fixed and coaxed along years after its reasonable life expectancy.There was no money to pay for new things and no-one would have contemplated going into debt, if it couldn’t be paid for today, it couldn’t be paid for tomorrow.
The farming life was hard and unrelenting, I remember him with an old coat on, tied with string around the middle, with a hurricane lamp in one hand, and a pitchfork holding a bale of hay held over his shoulder with the other hand, heading out into the rain and mud on a Christmas Day evening when the rest of the county was sitting down to watch Morecambe and Wise. Not once did I ever hear him complain, it was a life lived in a community where hardships were shared and where there was a common understanding of what daily life was about.
I never saw the men who came to help out receive any payment other than their dinner and I guessed it was the same when he went to other farms. It is all changed now, what farming there is left is business.
Perhaps the world has been gained in the growth of the material wealth of the community, but the soul has been lost.
The Guardian journalist, Polly Toynbee hates all this talk about the loss of things past.She calls it miserabilism. Back in January she wrote, “Let’s get one thing clear. This is the golden age – so far. There has never been a better time to be alive . . . than today, no generation more blessed, never such opportunity for so many. And things are getting better all the time, horizons widening, education spreading, everyone living longer, healthier, safer lives. Unimaginable luxuries and choices are now standard – mobile phones sending pictures everywhere, accessing the universe on the internet, and iPods with all the world’s music in your ear. Barring calamity, there will be better.”
If this is the golden age as Ms Toynbee contends, and if everything is supposed to be getting better and better, what has happened that David McWilliams should write the following in last Wednesday’s Irish Independent?
“The new face of Irish politics is Wayne. He is fourteen; hair gelled forward and dressed head to toe in a white Diadora tracksuit. His Nike Perseus runners are a bit scuffed. He snarls at the cameras with his middle finger raised contemptuously at the lens. He doesn’t bother to cover his face with his Celtic scarf. He is afraid of nothing, has no self control and knows no discipline. For him, this behaviour is normal. He spends his time mitching school, hanging around and terrorizing passer-bys outside the local Tescos. His heaven is cans of Dutch Gold, a bus shelter and a few spliffs. He gets his kicks from threatening and abusing locals, particularly older people. He is the neighbour from hell”.
Polly Toynbee’s world and David McWilliams’ world are one and the same; they are two faces of the one coin.The character of Wayne is not poor by any standards of material poverty.His shoes would cost €100, his tracksuit a similar price, as Polly Toynbee says, “Unimaginable luxuries and choices are now standard”.
The poverty in our society is not about what things we have or don’t have, it’s about meaning in life, about a sense of purpose, about the feeling that you count for something; it’s poverty of the spirit.
“What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” asks Jesus, and what has happened is that we have lost our soul.
Bertie Ahern had Robert Putnam, the American writer of the book ‘Bowling Alone’, to speak to a Fianna Fail conference last year.Putnam writes about the loss of social capital, about organizations and groups and voluntary activities dying away and disappearing.People increasingly lives where the only activity they do outside of work is to shop.Community ties, social networks, all the things that gave life meaning and purpose, have been slowly disappearing.Even religion is about what suits people now, it’s not about our duty towards God and our duty towards our neighbour; it’s about what makes us feel good.We’re all consumers now.
The world my granddad lived in thirty years ago, with neighbouring farmers supporting each other and payment never being considered; with the simple life of the farming year; with the families remaining in one place from generation to generation; was probably closer to the world of Jesus than it was to the world of Wayne outside of Tesco.The soul has been lost.
Why are we surprised? Jesus warns in very plain terms in Saint Matthew’s Gospel that if material things become a priority, then spiritual things are lost, “No man can serve two masters”.
In very clear words Jesus explains during the Sermon on the Mount that the things that really matter are not the things that you can buy.Isn’t life more important that what money buys? He asks the crowd in Matthew Chapter 6.
Polly Toynbee’s ‘miserabilism’, David McWilliams’ ‘Wayne outside of Tescos’, aren’t going to be addressed by any political party, neither social workers nor the free market are going to answer the problem of a spiritual emptiness.
“What can a man give in exchange for his soul?” asks Jesus,and the answer is, of course, nothing.What is there that can replace your soul?You could win every Lottery and buy every house and drive every car and wear every label and eat in every restaurant and meet with ever star and appear in every magazine, and it’s all nothing if you have lost your very self.My granddad standing knee deep in mud going out to check his cattle on a cold and wet winter’s night would be happier.
“Whoever wants to save his lifewill lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it”.Life lived as God intended is true life.Life lived without God is a pale imitation.
“What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?”